The Wallcreeper

All my life I had fantasized about being used sexually in every way. How naive I was, I said to myself.

Olia Mishchenko, untitled, A-frames (detail). 2010, pen and ink on paper. 18 × 24". Courtesy of the artist.

I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage. Immediately obvious was my sticky forehead. Maybe I was unconscious for a couple of seconds, I don’t know. Eventually I saw Stephen poking around the front of the car and said, “Jesus, what was that.”

He leaned in the window and said, “Hey, you’re bleeding. Hold on a second.” He crossed behind the car, looked both ways, and retrieved the bird from the opposite ditch.

I opened the door and put my feet outside, threw up, and lay down, not in the vomit but near it. The fir tops next to me had their roots at the bottom of a cliff.

“Can I use this bread bag?” Stephen asked. “Tiff? Tiff?” He kneeled next to me. “That was stupid of me. I shouldn’t touch you after handling this bird. Can you hear me? Tiff?”

He helped me into the back seat and I lay down on the bread. He said head wounds always bleed like that. I said he should have kept quiet. I lost the ability to see and began to hyperventilate a bit. The car pulled back on to the road. From the passenger seat the wallcreeper said, “Twee.”

“Open the bag!” I cried.

“Twee!” it said again.

Stephen pulled over and busied himself with it for a moment. He said, “I thought it was dead. I just wanted to get it off the road. I was going to have it prepared or something, I don’t know. You should see its wings. For me it’s a lifer. It’s like the most wonderful bird. But it’s a species of least concern and actually they’re all over the place except anyplace you would normally go. I identified it even before I hit it. Tichodroma muraria! It was unmistakable, just like they said it would be. So this is great. Dead is not a tick as far as I’m concerned. I identified it before I hit it anyway. It really is unmistakable. You should see it, Tiff. I’m rambling on like this because you might have a concussion and you’re not supposed to sleep.”

“Put on music.”

The wallcreeper protested. “Twee!”

I stayed awake by retching, and Stephen drove defensively but swiftly back to Interlaken.


When I awoke—I mean the next time I was allowed a cup of coffee—Stephen steadied my hand on the mug and said, “I have a surprise for you. But it’s in the kitchen.”

“I don’t think I can get up.”

“Well, it can’t come in here.”

“It will have to wait.” I slurped and he winced. I drank more quietly.

“Twee,” said the wallcreeper.

“You didn’t!” I laughed. But my—what am I going to call it? My down there plays a minor role in several scenes to come. It appeared to be connected to the underside of my stomach with shock cords stretched too tight. I rolled over on my side and coughed. I wasn’t pregnant, I noticed. I clenched my hands into claws and cried like a drift log in heavy surf. Stephen put his hands on my ears. Much later he told me he thought if I couldn’t hear myself I might stop. He said it reminded him of feedback mounting in an amplifier.


Our first meeting prevented a crime. He saw me standing in front of the open gate of the vault. I had an armful of files, my hips were thrust forward, and I was thinking: If I move fast, I can grab the files on that stuff they use to euthanize psychotics and be down the stairwell in ten seconds. I was a typist at a pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia. The vault was where the bodies were buried, and there was no one in sight. Except Stephen, who walked up and asked my name.

“Tiffany,” he said. “That means a divine revelation. From theophany.”

“It means a lampshade,” I said. “It’s a way to get around the problem of putting your light under a bushel. The light and the bushel are one.”

He didn’t back away. It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck. It might take a while, though, because Stephen looked as respectable as I did.

He was interviewing for a position in R&D in Bern.


He pretended I was going to be this really difficult and challenging conquest. He wooed me with everything I ever mentioned favorably: Little Debbie marshmallow pies, nasturtiums, the sweet wines so dear to the palate of our shared idol Richard Nixon (a joke), Alban Berg (a joke he didn’t get). He had no intention of going to Berne alone.

My parents were unanimous. “He’s a keeper,” they said. They just about kicked me into bed with him. So the first time we had sex was on their pullout sofa. He was beautiful. It was hypnotic. I was sold.


He warned me that his parents were arty. His father sat me down on the dock behind their house and advised me to enter into a suicide pact effective on Stephen’s 50th birthday. I said, “If I make it that long,” which was the right answer. His mother didn’t make it home that weekend. We were married in Orphans’ Court. From the vault to the altar took three weeks. We didn’t talk much about what we were doing. We had a deal.


I hadn’t wanted to be pregnant. It was just one of those things that happen when newlyweds get drunk. It seemed like something I’d get used to. Losing the baby was more dire than I had dreamed possible. Cause and effect had no relation at all. The effect was way over my head, and beside it, and beyond it. It was a bodily distress. I had no way of putting it into words. So I didn’t. Stephen would sit there on the edge of the bed, looking at me, holding my hand, then lie down and tuck himself in. I didn’t feel gloomy. I didn’t even feel sorry for myself. I didn’t tell myself what had happened. If I tell myself stories, I get very sentimental very fast. So I didn’t. I moved around slowly, looking at things before I touched them to make sure there was nothing frightening about them. I had no thoughts to speak of. I wanted to be addressed in hushed tones of pity, even by myself. I wanted to hear my own whispers in the next room and know that I was thinking of me.


We didn’t have friends in Berne really, but his colleague Omar came to look at the wallcreeper. Omar was in Animal Health, so he knew something about birds. Also, he was in pharmaceuticals, so he knew how to keep a secret. He told Stephen the bird would never fly again and that stealing it out of the wild was not of the brainiest.

The next day, I got up and went into the kitchen. The wallcreeper flew across the room, banged into the window, and lay still. Then, as before, it sat up and said, “Twee.” It leaped to its feet like a little karate black belt recovering from a fall. It flicked its wings and tongued a flax seed on the floor.

“I’m worried about it,” I said to Stephen on the phone. “It can’t get any traction on the wall. It needs pegboard. Then we could feed it. We could, like, put bugs in the holes in the pegboard. I don’t like that you’re feeding it bacon or whatever this is on the bulletin board. What is this? It’s going to pull out the pushpins and get hurt. We have to give it bugs, to prepare it for release into the wild.”

“If it gets out, we’ll never see it again,” Stephen said. “Why don’t you go out shopping and buy some curtains? Get white. That would keep it from trying to fly out the window. It’s going to get conspicuous if it starts flying around.” Which was true. It flew like a giant butterfly, or a tiny bird of paradise, or a nylon propeller fluttering from a kite.

“Scramble it some eggs,” Stephen added. “Whatever’s in eggs must be in birds. Relax until I get home.”


We kissed, but my whatever had not healed. It was hot and dry. (I mean my brain.)

Tweet

After Stephen saw the curtains and screwed the pegboard to the wall, he wanted to have sex standing up in the kitchen. It had been three weeks.

We kissed, but my whatever had not healed. It was hot and dry. (I mean my brain.) I just stood there in a state of mournful passivity while he knelt down and licked me, touching my asshole rhythmically with one finger and petting my thigh in counterpoint. I felt sad. His awkward hands reminded me of the flames around Joan of Arc at the stake. But I knew after we started to have actual sex I would feel better. However, that was before he entered my butt with the rest of his hand followed by his penis and the metaphoric auto-da-fé became a thick one-to-one description of taking a dump.

Now, all my life I had fantasized about being used sexually in every way. How naive I was, I said to myself. In actuality this was like using a bedpan on the kitchen counter. I knew with certainty that “pain” is a euphemism even more namby-pamby than “defilement.” Look at Stephen! He thinks he’s having sex! Smell his hand! It’s touching my hair! I thought, Tiff my friend, we shall modify a curling iron and burn this out of your brain. But I didn’t say anything. I acted like in those teen feminist poems where it’s date rape if he doesn’t read you the Antioch College rules chapter and verse while you’re glumly failing to see rainbows. I was still struggling to dissociate myself into an out-of-body experience when Stephen came, crying out like a dinosaur.

I gasped for air, dreading the moment when he would pull out, and thought, Girls are lame.


After a shower with fantasies of pharmaceutical-grade trisodium phosphate and nothing to wash with but gentle pH-negative shower gels, I had recovered sufficiently . . . actually I had recovered from everything! I was no longer in love! My sense of depending on Stephen for my happiness had evaporated. Furthermore, I had overcome my fear of intimacy. All intimacy was gone. I didn’t care whether Stephen ever understood me. I knew it for a fact. I had just proved it.

In addition, I felt almost nostalgic toward socially acceptable horrors with larger meanings related to reproduction. (As I was to learn, reproductive urges will serve as an alibi for just about anything.) I recalled things I had seen in the hospital that did not admit of euphemism—certain stark natural occurrences that gave the lie to language itself simply because no one, anywhere, absolutely no one in the world, would ever take a notion to claim they were fun.

I went to bed and lay propped up on pillows, thinking about it. Stephen came out of the shower and stood naked in the doorway. He was beaming like a god, radiant with abashed joy. “Was I bad?” he asked.

“You were super-bad,” I said. He knelt across my chest and eventually sort of fucked my mouth. He was uninhibited, as in inconsiderate. I felt like the Empress Theodora. Can I get more orifices? I thought. Is that what she meant in the Historia Arcana—not that three isn’t enough, but that the three on offer aren’t enough to sustain a marriage?


Omar and his wife had us over to dinner. She served unaccustomed delicious food and had us sit on unfamiliar comfortable furniture. She wanted to know about the wallcreeper.

“It’s beautiful,” Stephen said. “I mean, not flashy like ducks or elegant like avocets—”

“Flashy ducks?” Omar objected. He was from Asia.

“There are plenty of flashy ducks here,” I said in Stephen’s defense. “Relatively speaking.”

Stephen said, “OK, what I mean is, it has this essential duality. It’s tiny and gray and you’d never notice it, and then these wings. Woo. You have to see them.” He spread his hands like outfielders’ mitts and shook them to express his incapacity to understand the wallcreeper. The gesture was like a prayer of desperation, but he never raised his eyes, as if to say, there is no one to appeal to for help, not even me.

It was an effective gesture. Omar’s wife leaned back, nodding, believing in the wallcreeper.


Stephen came home one day mad at Omar, who had told him which zoo collects wallcreepers. Omar opined that we would be given amnesty if we surrendered Rudolf voluntarily. He reemphasized that in Asia even the squirrels are flashy and piebald, and that one should not get attached to a wild animal for its looks. Omar’s job involved feeding caged beagles different chow formulas and seeing which ones lived longest. The lab record was fourteen years.


In December there was a cold snap, and Stephen got into a state. “There’s an evasion,” he said. “We need to go north.” All sorts of birds that wintered in places like Denmark had decided even Holland was too cold, and were heading south in dribs and drabs, fetching up in swirling eddies near Zurich after they caught sight of the Alps.

“Oh, you go,” I said. “I’m reading a book some guy raved about in the Times called The Man Who Loved Children.

“Sweetie,” he said. He sat down next to me and put his arm around my shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, no!” I said. “It’s not like you’re thinking. He has seven kids and he hates them. He’s going to save the world with eugenics and euthanasia. I could go with you. But are you really sure I need to spend the weekend stumbling around on frozen dirt clods helping you level your tripod?”

“We could try again instead,” he said. “Sex-party weekend.”

“I’m still kind of all tore up,” I said. “You go.”

“Twee,” the wallcreeper remarked. “Twee!”

“Is it his suppertime?” I asked.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Stephen said. “Do you know what’s happening to his gonads?”

“No.”

“As his chin turns black, his testes are swelling from the size of pinheads to the looming, ponderous bulk of coffee beans.”

“Wow,” I said.

He kissed me. “His tiny heart is throbbing with love for someone he’s never seen. I love you, too, you know.” He embraced me, squeezing me very tight. “I love you so much, Tiffany.” The wallcreeper protested. “Cool your jets, Rudolf,” Stephen said.

He had named our bird after Rudolf Hess because its colors were those of a Nazi flag, with black on its chin for the SS in spring. To imply a certain tolerance for at least the form of his joke while rejecting its content, I had to suggest we name it after an anarcho-communist and came up, off the top of my head, with Buenaventura Durruti. But Rudolf stuck. So its name was Rudolf Durruti.


Sometimes I would sit and go over things Stephen had said during our whirlwind courtship, fitting them into a context I was learning only slowly. It was hard. He had told me so little about himself, intent on taking note of my little foibles so he could, for instance, surprise me with tickets to Berg’s Lulu.

“Hush now. Don’t rat me out just because you’re dying.”

Tweet

The birds were Stephen’s intimate sphere. He didn’t have to be cool or funny or even appetizing about them. “Breeding and feeding,” Stephen called their lifestyle, making them sound like sex-obsessed gluttons (that is, human beings) instead of the light-as-air seasonal orgiasts they are in reality—ludicrously tragic animals, always fleeing the slightest hint of bad weather in a panic, yelling for months on end to defend territories the size of a handball court, having brief, nerdy sex and laying clutch after clutch of eggs for predators, taking helpless wrong turns that lead them to freeze to death, drown, starve, or be cornered by hunters on frozen lakes, too tired to move.

To Stephen they were paragons of insatiable, elemental appetite. I saw them differently. I imagined two ducks, loyal partners. When the hunters cornered them, would they turn to face them, holding hands? Hell no. They would scatter in as many directions as there were ducks. The duck who got hit would look up with his last strength to make eye contact with his lifelong friend, who would shake her head as if to say, “Hush now. Don’t rat me out just because you’re dying.” Love would conquer all.

Excerpted from The Wallcreeper, forthcoming from Dorothy, a publishing project.

Excerpted from The Wallcreeper, forthcoming from Dorothy, a publishing project.

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