By Jessica Lee Richardson
The two shared a monster. The monster shared the two. Duplicates of the monster, which were still the monster, lived in each of the two, in their sternums. Usually. The two were named Bud and Blue. The monster was named Arrivederci. It named itself when Bud and Blue were taking an Italian cooking class and the chef would call this word out to the couple as they walked out of the glass doors on oaky evenings. The word mixed with full bellies and cool air would create a rivulet the monster enjoyed in the breastplates of his homes. He wanted Bud and Blue to call to him and slide him a rivulet, or at least a bowl of gnocchi, but they never did. Bud and Blue wanted Arrivederci to go.
Most of the time they forgot their monster was even there, but sometimes he would become active. He was like a gymnast in these periods.
“Do you feel that?” Bud would ask Blue, who would look down and wipe her hair out of her eye.
“Like a swollen ox rolling?”
“Yes or a prick of steel wool wrapped in a wave.”
“Yes or an envelope of explosive powder sealed with a kiss from a dead witch.”
“Yes or a walk down an aisle of talcum powder layered over broken glass.”
The two sat, sullen.
A stick, a horse jaw, a rancid punch, they went on. A bone-thick bruise.
Arrivederci was only stretching his muscles. He was only lifting his legs, pressing his palms; even the handstands and somersaults were innocent. He liked to play the mirror game with the other side of himself, across the way, in the other gut. He would create emotional renditions of his feelings in large gestures that he would copy back to himself in sync. He could hear them complain, but he had no alternative, cooped up as he was in tissue without so much as a rivulet. Sometimes he wondered if his hosts even knew his name. Sometimes he wrote lists to fill the loneliness his homes inspired in him. He listed the words trapped in Bud and Blue, the ones that would float down in their blood. He compared the lists and tried to understand the truth about love.
Bud–stingy, stuffed, blanket, toast, archbishop, sorry, boobs.
Blue–twist, archipelago, cake, alabaster, spaghetti, Istanbul, microphone.
He found a similarity sometimes, like arch, and chanted the word to them, arch arch arch! He wanted them to understand the mirror game in them, but he only cramped their individuality.
Sometimes he got angry with them and would exact revenge by stealing a secret word from Blue and whispering it into Bud’s blood. Blue, forgetting that they shared a monster would be beside herself when Bud looked into her eyes and knew the words she’d hid. That she has decided to go to Istanbul for a month without him, after all. That she was mad he didn’t bake a cake for her birthday. She, too, could see how terribly sorry he was for coveting other women’s boobs. Transparency is an uncomfortable quality, and Arrivederci could see through it all.
When Arrivederci was pleased with his homes he sang sweet words into the blood of them, moon, river, rock-type words. Cup, he thundered, spoon. Puddle gloss, he whispered into their lungs. Underwood, libretto, paper boat. Bud and Blue would feel young again and connected by shared air, as if there were no such thing as Arrivederci, who in these moments was content to hum through the strings of his selves, invisible.
But when their monster rumbled and roared and push-upped! The two would tear at their hair and scream. We must hatch a plan they’d say, but Arrivederci smashed each egglet of a blueprint of a plan. The monster dismantled words when he was scrambled and felt his homes to be in jeopardy. The wrong words like leave would float up, or worse, none.
One egglet he didn’t smash, though, couldn’t. After the fighting Blue and Bud would sometimes melt into a froth of oohs and ahs, and Arrivederci would close his ears and try to take a nap. Out of the froth of one of their ahs, Blue became pregnant. The word pregnant sang in their blood like the pleasant cramp of goodbye laced with thousands of handkerchiefs waving hello. At first Arrivederci plucked at the egglet. Sniffed it. Folded his arms. It was a boring companion. Arrivederci didn’t like it. But then it grew a small tail and he couldn’t help but take a shine to this veiny little tadpole beside him. He decided he would tell the changing egg with the tail hundreds of stories as it grew. He decided to tell the changing egg with the tail the one about the barber frowning, and the marionette winking, and the hen haggling. He wrote a list of important story subjects and elaborated in evenings when Bud and Blue fell fast asleep.
Story Subjects: animal love, love, love, putrid people, fish tanks, sanguine dreams, love, love, delicate china, stupidity, apologies, barstool legs, fame, dilettantes.
“There once was a Pekinese dog and a parakeet. They lived in a fancy old mansion but were terribly bored because they were owned by putrid people. The Putrid People completely forgot about them until guests came, at which time they would stretch out their arms as if saying “Tada!” and the guests would stare as the animals licked themselves, uncomfortable in the sudden glow. In the absence of love, the dog and the parakeet grew to love one another. The dog would rest her head under the parakeet’s gilded cage while the parakeet sang. He would blink his eyes rapidly so no one could catch him crying. The parakeet pretended she could only shriek in front of the putrid. For the dog alone she saved her beautiful notes.”
Arrivederci paused the storytelling to swallow his spit and make sure the fetus was listening. The tadpole had recently lost its tail. It seemed to happen quite suddenly. Fingers and toes had pushed themselves out of its blood sacks, and now Arrivederci was growing a real and annoying fondness for his tiny roommate. It looked like a monster! It had a giant angry looking head protruding over its unseeing eyes. It gave Arrivederci a rivulet just looking at this fetus, although he couldn’t fully tell if the little beast was listening. It seemed so, so he went on with it.
“One day the Putrid People took the parakeet from its cage, shaking their heads, and walked right out the door. The dog was beside himself. Where were they taking his best friend? He searched the house for another friend to confide his terror to. Room after room was empty of life, but then the dog remembered the fish tank in the foyer and bounded to the front of the house. He stared up wide-eyed at the tank.
“The fish wouldn’t sing to him. They were big and yellow and striped and dumb. But he could hear one thing from them. It was less of a song and more of a glug. They sang-glugged, Get me out of here.
“The dog wanted to make up for not rescuing the parakeet from the Putrid People so he tried to make this fish wish come true. He leapt at the fish tank with all of his might and knocked it down shattering.
“The fish sang a different thing writhing on the floor. He felt sorry then and tried to lick life into their gills. They couldn’t get oxygen from canine saliva, though, so they began to die. The dog ate them to get it over with quicker. And because of their tantalizing smell. The dog was embarrassed that they were delicious.
“When the Putrid People came home they had the parakeet in tow. She had just needed a checkup at a horrible place called Vet. The dog was so happy the parakeet was back that he completely forgot what he had done. He leapt up on the Putrid People’s legs in gratitude. But they didn’t like that one bit, and further they could see the fish tank mess all around their feet. They thought the dog was a Big Problem. They whipped him and then took him to a kennel where no one sang, and the dogs were all miserable.”
Animals don’t understand about people’s monsters, Arrivederci thought. He added “people’s monsters” to his list before continuing his elaboration for the squinting fetus.
“The parakeet had no friends and spent her days molting, though at night when she slept she had sanguine dreams of her old dog friend. She pictured him cavorting on barstools with gazillions of parakeets, saving their best notes for him.
“The Putrid People’s guests one day noticed that the parakeet was molting. The Putrid People distracted the guests with paintings and wood grain, but when the guests left, the Putrid People did something they’d never done. They were putrid, but they did feel bad about the dog, and felt that upright citizens shouldn’t have such unfortunate pets. For the first time in years, they questioned themselves. So they opened the tiny lock on the cage door to let the parakeet stretch her wings a bit in the grand old house.
“The parakeet wasted not a minute. She knew what the Putrid People valued and went straight for the delicate china they had on display. She flew into that delicate china with all her might, hoping to be sent away to wherever her dog friend had gone. She broke the heirlooms to pieces, pleased with the firm punch of her own beak and the muscle in her wing.
“The Putrid People ran around the house screaming. The bird wanted them to capture her, but even with her help they couldn’t grasp such a swift and delicate thing. They opened a window, just wanting the wreckage to stop, because now the parakeet was poking holes in prized paintings. The parakeet wanted to see her dog friend with all of her might, but the call of the fresh wind when the window opened intoxicated her. She could think nothing but drink. She couldn’t take it. The air sucked her right out of the house, and her first free flight was a nectar so exquisite, she forgot all about her friend in the high of heights so high.”
But not forever, Arrivederci explained. The fetus was grimacing. Arrivederci grimaced right back. He could hear Bud and Blue waking up, coughing and cursing for coffee, so he paused as he always did during days. He had to resume his daily job of stretching and begging for rivulets. For some reason the presence of the fetus had made him even more diligent in his work. He was barely sleeping. He had committed to a workout regimen and was growing strong muscles in both of his selves. Bud and Blue screamed their heads off a lot of the time, though the fetus seemed to have almost as much power over the two as Arrivederci did. They collapsed in puddles of soft voiced sighs almost as much as they hooted and hollered at each other. They would send down rivulets all right! But the rivulets never had Arrivederci’s name on them. This was disconcerting to Arrivederci, especially because he had to admit that the fetus was having a similar effect on him. One day his jealousy got the best of him, though, and he kicked the fetus. The fetus kicked right back. Blue made a sound like, “Oh.” This was the beginning of the kicking game, which they played and played. The fetus slyly won Arrivederci over in this way.
One day Bud and Blue had a new word in their blood. It was a word Arrivederci knew, but it was the way they said it that made it fall into his fists and vibrate. The word was “boy.” Boy, boy, boy, they both chanted. It was uncomfortable for the monster. He had seen the penis, of course. He’d seen it before they squirted jelly on Blue’s belly and rubbed a wand on her and she shouted with glee. But he had been avoiding it. The little penis growing there caused Arrivederci’s forehead to wrinkle exceedingly. He didn’t know what to do about his shifting predicament. For days he ceased his workout regimen. He stopped storying. He dropped his head in his hands in both of the sternums and stared at the penis as if challenging it. Herman kicked him right in the face.
“Herman!” Arrivederci yelled. “Herman, Herman, Herman!” It was Arrivederci’s self in Bud’s sternum that yelled the loudest.
The standoff between Arrivederci and the penis ended with the name. The monster was so happy with both his selves for coming up with the perfect name, a task that had befuddled the two. Once he sang it into the blood of Bud and Blue, it was official. But now the rivulets that came down not only didn’t have Arrivederci’s name on them, they had Herman’s name. He could no longer pretend that every fifth one was really for him and mistakenly sent to the fetus.
Luckily his muscles had grown strong. It felt more important than ever to resume his storytelling now that a plan was growing in him like an egg.
So he did. His voice took on gravity:
“After swooping and diving and perching, and diving again, after she scoped the town and the lakes and streams, ate six worms and dodged a cat, the parakeet remembered what she was supposed to be doing and gulped. She resolved to begin a search.
“She asked far and wide if anyone had seen a dog that weighs seventy pounds and blinks a lot. She asked a squirrel who shrugged, among other things. She asked a deer who dodged, among other things. She asked a rat who ran, among other things. Nothing. She asked so many animals that the dog became famous.
“One day she saw a great mastiff with crust in his eyes being walked on a leash. She recognized the people yelling at the dog (who was trying to obey but confused by the shouting). They were Putrid People. Not her Putrid People. But perhaps the world was filled with putridity. She flew up to the mastiff’s ear to the chagrin of the Putrid and sang a message she hoped would help him. And of course she told him her story while the people batted at her and spun and squawked. If you ever see him, please, she begged.
“The days passed slowly, but pass they did. Once, the dog, lying in his kennel listening to the others snore thought he heard the parakeet’s soft song in the night. He was right. She’d been flying overhead, searching. He wept and wept at the sound, and one of the other dogs nodded his head at one of the other other dogs.
“The crying dog! They all began to yap.
“Because he had become famous across the land, all of the dogs perked up. They wagged their tails and scratched at their cages. One among them had spoken to the parakeet, though. The great old Mastiff with crust in his eyes made his way to the edge of his cage. Something in his gait made all the dogs sit as if it were treat time. He began to tell the full story series of The Parakeet’s Search. The Searching Bird and the Shrugging Squirrel, the Searching Bird and the Dodging Deer, the Searching Bird and the Running Rat.”
But those are other stories, Arrivederci interrupted himself, for another day, he told the egglet. He made a note on his to-do list to tell the tinier tales inside the tale and then wondered if there were then more tales inside of those, and what if he himself was in a larger tale, and that tale was in a still-larger tale? But then the word tale lost its meaning and the world felt too enormous and he felt dizzy. He put away his notes for the night because the sun was rising the phlegm up out of his homes.
Arrivederci thought he would kick start the day with a few rounds of jumping jacks, but Blue had woken up with a loud hankering for chocolate cake. Arrivederci loved the word “cake” so he perked up. When Bud brought the plate to Blue the conversation devolved into something called “birth plan” and Arrivederci strained his ears. Birth Plan had been coming up lately. Usually when Birth Plan came up, it was high time for a back flip or two, but the weight of their voices was different so Arrivederci remained still. The words that floated down were pretty boring. Home, hospital, drugs. Some were nice like water and music. But what struck Arrivederci was the phrase uttered by Blue: “We have to decide now, Bud. We only have three months.”
Three months! Arrivederci did a sequence of nervous squats. A monster should know these things, he scolded himself. A monster shouldn’t get so lost in time all the time! While Bud and Blue commenced fighting about preventing a thing called C- section, Arrivederci shaped himself into warrior pose. He realized two things, one in each of his extending selves. 1. He would never have time to tell all of the stories, not even all of the stories inside of one single story. 2. He had to try.
That night, after Bud and Blue had made their Birth Plan, which included the excellent word “tub,” Arrivederci had his notebook ready before they even fell asleep. He began with the Searching Bird and the Shrugging Squirrel, a story about how food and riches are great unless you let them twist your heart into a tiny numb acorn.
Baby Herman had grown eyebrows and used them to eye Arrivederci suspiciously. The monster would not be distracted by infantile skepticism, however. When he got to the part about the squirrel taunting the parakeet and found another story hidden in there, about the squirrel’s siblings torturing her to compete for their parent’s affection, he let himself slide into it. Inside of that was a story about the squirrel’s parents, and inside of that was one about her grandparents, and on and on all the way back to the Epic Battle of One Winter, the tale where all of the animals grew limbs to match their skills after a Dark Wizard nearly took them all out in the forms of each other. The path to that story was riddled with side stories about friends and trees and frozen lakes. It was tough work ignoring them, but it was all about focus, Arrivederci told himself.
In the morning he was so exhausted he could only half-heartedly stretch. Acting out seventeen renditions of nested tales for a pre-lingual mind is terribly tiring. “You try it!” Arrivederci said angrily to an imagined audience.
The nights continued like this–frantic and full. Herman was looking handsome by the end of the seventy-three iterations of the stories stuffed in the Searching Bird and the Dodging Deer. The baby’s skin had thickened and smoothed while Arrivederci sent him words like “spots” and “fear” and enacted deadlocked horns and trembling legs and all manners of beastly bodies hiding in labyrinthine forests. Herman had been flipping around for a while but now seemed to have gotten comfortable with his head pointing down.
The nights grew weirder and weirder as Arrivederci explored the innards of the Searching Bird and the Running Rat. By now he was so adept at the Trend that he had begun breaking it apart. He was finding horrific and complicated humanity inside of a simple stare-down between a rat and an exterminator! He was unable, sometimes, to express it in animal terms, and had resorted to human ones, philosophical treatises, even cracking open the words themselves and experimenting with the implications of their order. He had resorted to poetry.
He’d noticed the Trend one hundred and four stories ago. Still he had been fascinated by it for some time and had a love for it even now. It went like this: in every single story one element thwarted another. Conflicts of battle and blood, spillage, metaphoric or real, in the words and under. Thwart thwart thwart went the tales and Arrivederci had had the gall to wonder why? What more? But not the gall to know the answer! He was sure he would never finish the telling in time for the Birth Plan. The Birth Plan was thwarting him!
Baby Herman groaned. Not from his mouth, but from within.
By day all of Arrivederci’s nervous energy was upsetting Blue. “Hot” she said, over and over, “pissed.” He wasn’t trying to upset her, even though there was no chance of a rivulet these days. He just wanted Herman to be prepared. It’s all anyone wants, he thought.
He knew now that even with all of his muscles and lists, he was insufficient. Worse, his beloved words were.
The bird/rat business had left poetry behind and turned into a harsh sound massage by the end. “Ah ah ah. Oh/oh and a bite/a/bang ah.” He decided to have mercy on himself and scrap it. Baby Herman was blinking at him. The Birth Plan was any day now.
He had to return to the larger story. He hoped he would find something more there.
It took him a minute to remember where he had left off. The kennel returned to him, though. The domesticated and caged, scratching to get close to something they perceived as bigger than themselves.
Arrivederci shook his head and took on the voice of the Mastiff while Blue’s sternum and Herman’s feet pressed against his lungs.
This is it now:
“I spoke to her, the Mastiff said to the dog. The parakeet, he meant. She asked me if I ever met you to tell you … she’s so sorry.
“So very sorry, the Mastiff repeated, lowering his head. The dog didn’t understand.
“The air was too strong. She wanted to be here with you, the bird, but the air was too strong.”
Arrivederci thought for a moment about how the dog would feel hearing something like this. Then Arrivederci himself felt it.
“She’s free? The dog asked, and upon the drool-drenched nod of the Mastiff before him, the dog began to leap with joy.
“The parakeet was free and had not forgotten him.”
Arrivederci paused here for effect. He had lightened his own mood with the truth of how beautiful things sometimes escape.
“And do you know what happened?” He asked Herman.
“Well it’s true that the dog lived out the rest of his days happy, and cheered up his bunkmates as well, who all admired him because he was the most famous dog they’d ever met. They played pool and poker and told stories. The kennel workers were less putrid then their original people–some were even dilettante artists–and the canines carved out a life for themselves, however small. Sometimes at night the dog dreamed of sweet songs under gilded cages. On those nights what was dream and what was real blended sweetly enough to fill a sky.”
Herman was fast asleep. The monster patted himself on the back. He felt a little cheap. But in a good way. Plus he had a new plan. It would never work for him the way it did for the parakeet, because he was a monster. Doomed to expand. But at least it was a move toward something. Instead of just away from a thwart.
Quietly, Arrivederci whispered as many more stories as he could, so Blue and Bud couldn’t hear, and so that the stories would blend into dreams like they did in the stories, but Herman had grown fat with tales and food and he pushed down hard against Arrivederci. It made the kicking seem like raindrops by comparison. He pushed and pushed and it got tight, so tight in both of the sternums. Even Bud’s.
The baby couldn’t care about dogs and birds forever, he had to grow. Arrivederci was moved by his strength. He knew what was coming and knew Herman would need it.
Birth Plan had arrived. It was time for Blue to get the baby out. All of the falling words said fuck and the rumble was like nothing kickboxing Arrivederci could ever create. A tempest of fluid and press beset him, squished into the tiniest corner, face smashed against Blue’s costal cartilage, feet curled and bent into a vertebra. He knew he had to break off a part of himself, like Blue was doing, like Bud was doing, like even the little baby called Herman was doing. It would hurt, but he would third himself, send a triplicate out with the child, and would sing across the strings to whole himself later. If he made it.
Together, he and Blue screamed. A monster dividing is a sacred but brittle act. Wiped in mucus and muck, raw as it is, the pain and splendor cannot be summed up with rolling oxen or poisons. A monster dividing is how the earth got here. A split as deep as stars inverting. The screams of the whole family crescendoed, bending the air of the room into an awful shimmer.
After he had gathered his selves and was splitting for good, Blue called to him. “Arrivederci!“ She yelled, her voice like swallowed thunder, but it was too late. His new third had half swum down Herman’s mouth, far from the rivulet with his name on it, readying himself for his next life-long goodbye.
“Do you feel that?” Blue asked Bud, when the room returned to calm. They were staring at the soft hairs upon little Herman’s head while he took his first glimpses of the world.
“Like rosettes of sweet cream ice, enough to fill a sea?”
“Yes, or a floating picnic in a painting of clouds?”
“Yes, or a bar of ballerinas cuddling chinchillas.”
“Yes, or a hammock of pillows strung from the sky.”
The two sat, awestruck.
“A gathering wave, a silken kiss, a sign at the airport,” they went on. “A lifelong dream.”
Arrivederci rested quietly in Herman where the falling blood words were simpler for now. Mom, Dad, food. Bud and Blue could hardly feel Arrivederci at all until some mornings when Herman would cry with the fervor of fever, and sleep had been scarce. Then the whole family would mirror the horror film in each other while Arrivederci stretched his legs in glee.
He didn’t worry as much about his muscles growing flabby these days. His nights were spent betraying the secrets of Bud and Blue to their son, but not the secrets of the boy, which were too complex as wordless as they were. He dreaded the day when his new home became crowded and the stories were forgotten and the lists began. For now he was savoring his time teaching the child the words of his parent’s story. But that’s another story.
“Bye bye!” Herman learned to say one day, and the parents clapped with joy. He’s so smart, they beamed. And they were right. He opened and closed and opened his hand.
Jessica Lee Richardson’s first story collection, It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides (FC2, 2015), where this story originally appeared, won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize and was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award. Her fictions have appeared or will appear in Adroit, the Collagist, the Indiana Review, Joyland, and the Masters Review among other places. She is working on a novel about emotional contagion and weather and teaching and editing at Coastal Carolina University where she’s an Assistant Professor. You can read some of her short work at www.jessicaleerichardson.com.
From It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides by Jessica Lee Richardson. © 2015 Jessica Lee Richardson. Used with permission of The University of Alabama Press, publisher of Fiction Collective Two (FC2) books.