Prose Header


by Elana Gomel

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

I spent an hour lying fully dressed on the bed, listening to the dying sounds of the household: footsteps, the flush of the toilet, a snatch of canned laughter from the TV. Finally it was quiet.

I got up and slipped out. I could always say I wanted a drink of water or midnight snack.

Kathy had shown me where Jonathan’s room was, though I had not gone inside. But I’d have known it anyway: there was a strip of light spilling from under the door, which I opened without knocking.

I had never been to an autistic child’s room before and it struck me how unchildlike it was: no happy clutter of stuffed animals, colorful posters, comic books. It was as austere as a monk’s cell, painted and carpeted in soothing creams and pastels. Autistic children cannot stand too much visual stimulation. One absence was particularly glaring.

There was no computer.

Jonathan was curled up on the carpet like a stick insect: all bony joints and long splayed fingers. His dark face looked up at me from the tangle of limbs and curly hair.

“Do you want to talk?” I asked.

He nodded.

I lowered myself on the floor beside him. He had a strange smell: not unpleasant but unexpected, like machine oil or acetone.

“So,” I said, “You’re one of us.”

“Our man” is what I actually said but that’s how it is in Russian. Later, remembering our conversation, it made me laugh.

“One of us?”

“When I was brought to this country,” I said, “I refused to speak English. I did not talk for six months.”

I blamed my mother for leaving our Moscow apartment and her gaggle of chain-smoking friends who brought me books and sweets and talked to me as if I were an adult in exchange for my stepfather’s bland suburban house with a giant TV perpetually on. They divorced when I went to college.

Jonathan shook his head. “I’m not like you,” he said. “I can speak English too. I can speak any language I want.”

“Can you speak Mandarin?’

He said something that sounded like a bird’s warble.

“How do you learn all these languages?” I asked.

He explained.

I discounted his explanation, of course; chalked it up to his overactive imagination. I still thought it was his birth-mother’s tongue. When he spoke Russian at the dinner-table, knowing I alone would understand, it was, I believed then, a cry for help. From one misfit to another.

But doubts began almost at once. For one, his Russian was flawless. It was not the lisping remnants of baby-talk. His declensions were perfect, as mine were not, eroded by the relentless onslaught of English.

And then there was the substance of what he said.

Later, as I retraced it in my mind, lying in sleepless darkness, what struck me most was a relaxed quality of it that kept me listening, afraid to ask questions, to interrupt the soothing flood of words that washed over me. It was not that I forgot I was talking to a six-year-old. I was overwhelmed by the realization that this particular six-year-old deigned to talk to me.

And his voice... It was familiar; not the voice itself, which was strangely high, even for a child, but the intonation. I remembered it well, from the old days when Kathy and I had shared a pooch named Robin. This is how I used to talk to Robin when I came back from another boring date or meaningless party. He always listened attentively, one ear cocked up, his moist devoted eyes on me. Just as mine were on Jonathan.

After half an hour, I knew that what he was saying was true.

The conversation — or was it a monologue? — stopped in the middle of a sentence. He simply turned away and started rocking. I lingered for a while, hoping he would notice me again, and then slipped out. Fortunately, Kathy and Murray were fast asleep.

Drinking tepid water in the kitchen — I was unaccountably thirsty — I suddenly realized that this was it. The end. This beautiful house and millions like it, all over the globe. Gossip, pettiness, heartbreak. All done for.

I smiled and went to bed happy.

“Some animals are useful, like those two. Some animals are disgusting. Like dogs.”

“Why are dogs disgusting?”

“Too stupid.”

We do not like animals whose minds are too simple, too remote from ours. Mice, rats, cockroaches... But we hear of children raised by higher animals, wolves or apes. Like Mowgli.

He did not know the story of Mowgli. It seems to me now that he did not know any stories, perhaps did not understand narrative at all. Stories unfold in time: they are a vehicle for squeezing information into a linear sequence, appropriate for simple creatures like ourselves. He lived in the simultaneity of the world we have created but do not understand.

“Don’t you love your parents? They’re doing so much for you.”

“They try to talk. And they don’t know how.”

I had loved my mother once. Before she brought me to this sterile country, exchanged the fluid sounds of my mother tongue for the harshness of an alien language. But for Jonathan, there was no such thing as mother tongue. Because all tongues were his mother.

I left next morning. Jonathan barricaded himself in his room; Kathy, already on her second drink, was weeping into the dirty dishes in the kitchen. Murray hugged me in the dappled shadows of the redwoods.

“Thank you for coming,” he said.

This was the last time I saw him or Kathy.

* * *

The story broke out two weeks later, raging through the blogosphere like wildfire. It had everything the bottom-feeders need: the pathos of family love, the mystery of madness, and the horror of violence. For months afterwards, experts pontificated, politicians wagged fingers, and ordinary people shuddered in delicious terror. Funds were raised on behalf of autism networks and adoption agencies.

It got so bad I wanted to turn off my computer, just to get away from the pictures. Splatters on the walls; two raggedy bundles, tossed in the middle of the untidy bedroom like something left over from a move. And a small body suspended from a ceiling fixture in the austere cream-painted room.

But the computer had to stay on, I had to be connected to the web, and so I got an eyeful of the pictures and absorbed all the nonsensical theories, all the experts’ chaff, all the trolls’ venom. An unstoppable flood of information, sweeping aside our flimsy mental dams.

The facts were not in dispute: Jonathan had killed his parents and hanged himself. Even the question of how he managed to overpower two adults was solved with forensic tests: he had crushed a handful of Kathy’s sleeping pills into their hot toddy. This showed a degree of foresight unusual for any six-year-old, let alone a developmentally disabled one and naturally became the fodder for endless conspiracy theories. But this did not surprise me at all. Nor was I surprised by his parricide.

“Some animals are useful. Some are disgusting. When they are not useful anymore, they are sent away.”

But suicide? Jonathan was a child, after all. Or maybe not. What do I know about him and his kind? Perhaps they never grow up. Perhaps they do not need to. Children are violent and immoral; children are peaceful and pure. Both statements are true. The ambiguity inherent in the way we name things, we think of things. The ambiguity of language.

“The world no longer speaks your language.”

The word in Russian, “mir,”can mean both “world” and “peace.” Was he accusing us of being too warlike, or was he saying that we no longer fit the world we have created? Flip it around like a coin: heads I win, tails you lose. Human beings like us, like Kathy and Murray, like me, are obsolete. Jonathan’s kind is to inherit the earth.

But then, why did he kill himself?

Maybe he did not.

“People are words. You can make as many words as you like if you have language. But if words are defective, language suffers. And then new words are made. Words like me.”

The human genome is a language, speaking to itself through the uncountable permutations of its basic code. But now there is another code, another ocean of signs, washing through the biosphere, silencing the ancient muttering of DNA. The web.

“Is that why you hate computers?”

“Hate? They are useless, that’s all.”

Jonathan did not need the clumsy interface of our mechanical toys, mediating between the infinite ocean of language and the finitude of his biological self. He could dive and swim in it because it was his natural habitat. He was the web made flesh.

There are others like him, or so he told me. How many? He did not know, did not care. The rates of autism are through the roof; and though not all autistic children are like Jonathan, many of them must be. They will not join forces, will not rise against the old humanity, to slaughter or enslave us. There is no need. Every day the web is growing stronger; every day it impinges upon the old animal code of DNA, tweaking it, rewriting it, giving birth to children that do not speak language because they are language.

This new language needs no human intention to give it meaning: it is self-sufficient, self-contained, easily encompassing the babble of humanity’s paltry tongues. It abandons the futile war over meaning and the heartbreak of communication in favor of endless play. Its words are children sitting in austere empty rooms, while their minds are roaming at will in the infinite ocean of signs. Children like Jonathan.

And still, I remember his dark, strangely mature face and the pathetic fragile body. His temper tantrums... Perhaps being made flesh is a heavy burden for the word.

He killed his parents. But they were not really his parents. He was a child of the web; and he went back to his mother. Perhaps Kathy and Murray realized what he was. Perhaps they threatened to expose him.

I told him I would never betray him. I would be on his side, no matter what. If his kind is to inherit the earth, I will help them and ask for nothing in return.

Did the first domesticated dog follow the sound of men’s voices, the echo of their language, pining for the magic he could never possess? I no longer own a dog but I can be a dog. And I will wait for my master.

“Hide and seek.”

I have seen his dark face and pale limbs flash across my computer screen just as I am about to turn it off. I have heard an echo of his whistling voice when my cell-phone rings without a caller ID. I have seen him hiding among a knot of refugees in a video clip from Africa or fading into the background of a physics lecture on YouTube.

“Can I come back to talk to you, Jonathan?”

“You can always talk to me.”

I’ve started learning Mandarin. I can never be like him, no more than a dog can raid his master’s library. But dogs can learn a little, cock a ear, respond to a command, and pretend to understand even when they don’t.

The difference between me and his parents: I am bilingual. And when I learn my third, fourth, fifth tongue, the illusion of meaning will dissipate and I will be able to talk to Jonathan again. By then, I will not need a silly human name to know him.

But it would be nice if he called me Valya.

Copyright © 2012 by Elana Gomel

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