Below, the Eumenides crunch across the frost on their way to work. They rub the sleep out of their eyes. Their breath condenses before them, and they pull on their gloves. The metal will be cold on their hands.
These four are the first shift. They take their places at the guns, and start to aim.
No ear protection. The Eumenides are deaf to all appeal. Suddenly the air shatters with a cacophony that will last the rest of the day, and from the air, the children start to fall.
Even miles away, on the Island, the Virgin could hear the guns. Like the baboons, she paid them no heed. She was too far away to see the falling bodies. She didn’t care about them.
How do you think she got to the Island in the first place? She was a fallen body too. She just happened to have lived.
The Virgin played war games while the apes made origami. They roasted banana and fish on the beach. The sun was warm, the food was plentiful, and the sound of the guns was far away.
And then one day, the apes ran out of typing paper. A great wail went up from the island, and the animals cried real tears. There would be no more origami.
Weeks passed. Suddenly idle, the baboons had no idea what to do with themselves. They fought. They stole. Some smoothed out old pieces of origami, someone else’s origami, any scrap of paper they could find, tried to fold it anew, but inevitably another would be looking on, enviously.
Paper. They had a lust for paper.
More often than not, two apes would engage in a tug of war and each would be left with a shred.
The origami got smaller and smaller. Tinier and tinier shreds of paper.
And finally, not even shreds.
And then the first murder.
The Virgin did not do origami. She did not understand the passion for folding. But she knew that peace on the island was over.
Someone would have to get more typing paper.
The Island was a beautiful place. White sand beaches and palm fronds swaying in the breeze. Hot sun, blue sky and blue water. In the distance, where the sea met the sky, the horizon blurred. Water became air and air became water, and all was in consonance in the world. It was as though from the Island you could see Eternity.
It was nothing like the Mainland. It was nowhere near the Mainland.
And although she had left as a child, she still knew, the Mainland was the only place you could get something that had been manufactured, something that had been man‐made. How to get back?
The Virgin had arrived by air, so she tried to return by air. She tried a hop, a leap, a running jump. No way to launch; every time she went up she came straight back down. How long had it been? Had it been years? She had forgotten how to fly. She would have to find another way.
The journey to the Island had taken no time at all. It was an Icarus fall, over in seconds. But that was air. The journey by sea – she had no idea what she was getting into.
The water was cold and rough. She didn’t realise how far she would have to swim. It seemed to take years. It seemed to take years off her life.
By the time she washed ashore, almost dead, she was an old woman. She lay in the dark shivering and waited for the sun.
She had crossed an ocean, she had crossed latitudes, but the ground she found was not a beach. It was a northern shore, rocky and covered with seaweed. A tan froufrou of foamy pollution edged the water, kissing the mussels. About a quarter of a mile away, she could see oil tanks. Flanked by an embankment, a narrow ribbon of sand traced the coast. Above that loomed the highway. Even at dawn, cars whizzed by.
The Gunner had been up all night. He had drunk until there was no more money and no more booze. He was happy. He was walking home along the beach.
He didn’t see her until he tripped over her, then the ground slammed his cheek. ‘Ow,’ he said, in delay.
She opened her eyes but said nothing. He was a young man, handsome, wearing the uniform of the Eumenides.
She remembered from way back. Even children know about the Eumenides. She remembered them on the street, with their guns. Even as a child, she noticed their beauty. The Eumenides stand tall and straight and proud, like ideal men. And they kill.
‘What you doing there, naked lady,’ he said. ‘You’re a pretty lady.’
She surmised she didn’t look as old as she felt. ‘I’m cold,’ she said. He puked and passed out beside her.
The sun rose in the sky. She didn’t get up because she didn’t have the strength. She needed food. She needed rest and warmth.
He awoke fresh as an athlete in training. ‘Hey look, it’s a girl,’ he said, having forgotten the night before. He nudged her. ‘Hey, girl, are you OK?’ She shook her head. ‘Can you get up?’ Again, the shake. He got to his feet, bent over and threw her over his shoulder. ‘I’m going to take you home.’
Home was a basement apartment with Masonite clapboards and broken steps to the front door. Dirty, drafty windows. He laid her on a flowered couch of astonishing ugliness and covered her with a granny‐square afghan. Grateful, she fell asleep.
He woke her with a bowl of ramen noodles and a peanut butter sandwich. He wasn’t eating; he had a beer. She consumed the food as though she hadn’t eaten in weeks and asked him if he had anything more.
He said, ‘Yeah, it is funny that I don’t have a TV but the truth is I put my foot through it when the Dolphins beat the Patriots, so I just watch at the bar now.’
She asked him if he knew where she could find typing paper.
He said, ‘Yeah, the uniform. I work as a gunner for the Eumenides. My old man was a gunner too, he always was pushing me to do this. I hate this work, it sucks.’
That was when she remembered that the Eumenides are deaf.
‘My old man,’ he said, ‘He was big on manhood. He always said, “The Eumenides, now that’s a job. You thin out the herd, pick off the weak. The Eumenides, you gotta be a hard man to do it. You can’t feel mercy. You gotta be a man.” My old man was an asshole.’
She realised she would have to ask someone else.
He offered her a beer but she turned it down. She pretended to have her mouth all stuck up and made the motions of a joke: beer doesn’t go with peanut butter.
He laughed. ‘Everything goes with beer.’
The next day he went to work, and she put on some of his clothes and went for a walk. Every person she met, she asked them where she could find typing paper. Nobody had ever heard of such a thing. She walked and walked.
Bodies lay haphazardly on the street and on the sidewalk. Occasionally one fell from the sky; she had to keep her eyes open. Some of them were dead but most were still alive.
On the sidewalk, a young woman of extraordinary beauty lay, crying.
The Virgin helped her up and saw that half her face, the side on which she had been laying, had been shot off. The woman said to her, ‘Now no one will love me. Why couldn’t I die?’ The Virgin had no answer.
Once she encountered a Eumenides walking his beat. He came upon a body that was still alive, shouting for help. He shot it in the head. She gasped and put her hands over her mouth. He shrugged his shoulders and explained, ‘Mercy.’
Another day, she went into a 7‐11 and asked the clerk, ‘Why does no one stop the Eumenides?’
The clerk said, ‘Stop them from what?’
She tried a different tack. She said, ‘Is there any way to help these people, all these bodies in the street? Is there any medicine?’
He laughed and said, ‘Oh no one can heal them. They have to heal themselves. Look.’ He showed her two little bald spots, one on both sides of his head. ‘Bullet went in one side and out the other. And look at me! I picked myself up, I’m right as rain. Just because someone shoots you down, it doesn’t mean you have to stay there.’
She wondered, ‘Are you brain‐damaged, or are you right?’
On the fifth day, she stumbled into a Staples. The clerk told her no one typed anymore so no one made typing paper anymore, but you could buy printer paper if you had the money. It occurred to her, she had been on the Island a long time. She asked him what money was and he got sarcastic. She asked him how one went about getting money and he laughed at her. ‘What do you think I’m wasting my life here for? You get a fucking job!’
She applied for waitress work. She applied for secretarial work. She applied for metermaid and mail carrier and barmaid. No one would hire her.
One day she stumbled into a zoo. She saw the baboons pacing behind bars, and tears came to her eyes. She grabbed a guard and pointed to the apes. ‘They need an occupation,’ she said, ‘or they will go mad. Get them some ty – printing paper.’ The guard made her leave the zoo.
But she came back, day after day. The baboons knew when to expect her, and they brightened up at her arrival. When she asked the warden if she could have work feeding the baboons, he agreed. She had a job. And she had a troupe of new friends. ‘When I get some money together,’ she whispered, ‘I’ll bust you out.’ She winked, and the baboons winked back.
Within a couple of weeks, she had bought her own clothes. She could have left the Gunner, but she stayed because she liked him.
‘I can spot them a mile away,’ the Gunner said, ‘all the hopefuls.’ He was playing inside with a soccer ball. He tossed it up with his instep, hooked it with the curve of his arm, coursed it over his body as sinuously as a snake. He flowed around the ball, the ball flowed over him, like water around a rock. He and the ball in motion together was the most graceful sight she’d ever seen. While he played, while he kept the ball in motion, he talked.
‘The Eumenides, they picked me,’ he said, ‘because I almost made it. I was good. I was a star. I lived for the game. And I was just a kid, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. By the time I was eighteen I started to lose it. It was the booze. But hey, it’s part of the game. You play hard, you party hard. Only I partied a little harder, and soon I couldn’t stop it, and I wasn’t playing well anymore. That was when I got shot out of the sky. They didn’t leave me to die, they came and got me. I was a recruit.
‘Now I can see, when I’m at my guns, who are the ones with talent. I can smell them. Not just soccer. Baseball, football, anything. Who are the hopefuls. Who’s arrogant. Who thinks he’s invulnerable. Who needs to be brought down, taught what the ground feels like. I am a Fury. I am Fate.
‘They picked me because I can and will pick off the ones who fly too high. If you think you’ve got what it takes, you belong to me. I keep order in the universe. I keep everyone even.
‘And maybe I won’t kill them. Maybe I’ll just give them the opportunity to learn how to go on when they’ve lost everything. I show them what they’re really made of. Some of them never really heal, they just limp through life – most people just limp through life. Some of them don’t even pick themselves up. Sometimes what they’re made of isn’t much.
‘Course sometimes I miss. I mean, you drink as much as I do, sometimes you’re going to miss. Some get through. But most, I’m pretty efficient.’
The Virgin didn’t know she had a look of repulsed horror on her face. He noticed, and the ball stopped in mid‐flow. She opened her shirt and showed him her scar. Just under the clavicle, where she’d been shot.
‘Did I do that?’ he said. He folded her in his arms. ‘Maybe it was a stray bullet,’ he said. ‘Maybe it was one of my buddies. It had to have been an accident. I wouldn’t have shot you.’
She looked in his eyes to see if he was telling the truth, and he was.
She said, ‘If you’re so sad about not playing soccer anymore, why don’t you quit drinking and go back to it?’
Of all things for him to understand. He looked at her blankly, looked out the window, then threw the ball down hard, turned, and left.
The apartment was strange without him around. He didn’t come back that night, or the night after, or the night after. The Virgin was worried and went looking for him.
She went to the Anti‐Aircraft Control Station, where the gunners take their posts. He wasn’t there. One of the other gunners saw her and elbowed the one beside him. The other gunner looked, saw her, and the two laughed. She came up to them and asked if they had seen him. They didn’t even turn around. They just went on shooting. Oh yeah, deaf. Still, she knew they knew something. No one’s that deaf.
Then she thought of their laugh, and she really started to worry. What did they know?
He didn’t come home for a week. One night the doorbell rang. He leaned in the doorway, newly skinny. His face, his normally‐pressed uniform, his hands, everything was covered with filth. He looked sheepish.
She threw her arms around him as though she’d thought he was dead, which she had.
‘I lost my keys,’ he said.
She laughed, and tears streamed down her cheeks. She hugged him again.
‘And my wallet,’ he said. ‘I passed out and when I woke up, everything was gone.’
He flopped down on the bed, still in his filthy clothes, still in his shoes. ‘I lost my job,’ he said.
She crawled onto the bed with him, then leaned down and gave him a kiss. She smiled broadly. ‘Congratulations,’ she said. ‘You did it on purpose, didn’t you?’
‘Not me,’ he said.
She noticed that now they spoke the same language.
After that, they shared his bed. She held him at night.
‘You got a name?’he asked.
‘I don’t remember,’ she said.
‘You need a name.’ She wracked her head. The only names she remembered were the ones she had known as a child. Dick and Jane. She didn’t want to be Jane. She didn’t want to be Dick.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked him.
‘Isn’t that a disease?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘It’s cool. It’s brutal out there, you don’t want some pussy name. You want a name that’ll kill.’
‘Typhus sounds very masculine,’ she said. He nodded in the dark. She said, ‘I think I should be called Copralalia.’
‘What the fuck is Copralalia?’
‘It’s when you can’t stop cursing.” It seemed to her that if you got shot out of the sky, it would be perfectly right and normal not to be able to stop cursing.
‘That’s a stupid name,’ he said. ‘You can’t die of that.’
‘OK,’ she said, ‘then how about Pneumonia? If you hadn’t saved me, I would have gotten pneumonia.’
‘Pneumonia’s a very feminine name,’ he approved.
He didn’t quit drinking. He couldn’t. She didn’t make enough money to support him, and the amount of money he could spend on alcohol was bottomless.
Meanwhile, Pneumonia thought at night of the baboons back on the Island. Of how long she’d been gone. She wondered if they were still alive.
‘I’ve got to get on,’ she thought, but the problem was no longer just bring back a ream of typing paper. She would have to bring several reams of printer paper.
She would have to keep them dry in the passage. She would have to figure out how to make the passage and still survive. She would have to bring all her friends from the zoo. What had once been a difficult task was now insurmountable.
A boat, she would need a boat. She saved her money a little at a time. A dollar here, a dollar there.
Then sometimes it would all be gone. The Gunner needed it for booze. Didn’t matter where she hid it. He always found it.
Still. He was looking for work. It’s not like he wasn’t trying.
When they had sex, he would hold her tight with his arms all around her, cheek to cheek. She couldn’t see his face. He didn’t want her to see his face. When he came, he wailed, as though in anguish, as though he were trying to crawl all the way in, and the anguish was that he couldn’t.
When she was with him, her eyes leaked. When he was gone, she yearned for him.
‘I don’t know why you love me,’ he said.
‘I don’t either,’ she said, ‘but I do.’
‘I love you more,’ he said.
‘Let’s not get into that again,’ she said. ‘I have to get back to the Island.’
He looked away, then left the room.
At work, the baboons were losing patience. ‘You lied to us,’ they said. They began to hate her. When she came to work, the mandrills snarled, then showed her their blue butts. They narrowed their eyes. They thought about biting.
Every penny she saved, Typhus knew it was to get back to the Island. He drank it away.
‘It’s not going to work,’ she thought, and started taking long walks again. ‘I’m not going to be able to earn a way back.’ She wrestled with this problem night and day. She walked the streets. She walked the shore.
One day, about a hundred feet out, she saw a skiff, moored to an anchor marked by an empty bleach bottle. She worked it out in her head. Swim to the skiff. Row it to shore. Fill it with paper, and take off.
She would steal her boat.
Could she take anyone? Could she take a single baboon? Could she take Typhus?
Could she live without Typhus?
Pneumonia worked it out in her head. On the Island, there would be no booze. Typhus would go nuts, but he would quit. If he didn’t kill her. And then he would be OK, he would be healed, and they could be together, with the baboons. They would roast bananas and fish on the beach. They would sleep in each other’s arms.
The case of printer paper was too heavy to bring to the beach all at once. On her day off, she brought it, ream by ream, with the box to keep them all together. Assembled them, then went back for Typhus.
‘Come with me,’ she said. ‘I’m leaving.’
‘Then go,’ he said, opening a beer. ‘Fucking go.’
Pneumonia stood in the doorway, not knowing what to do, and then she turned and went.
A block away, she heard his feet pounding as he ran after her. Typhus ran with the grace of a born athlete. ‘Don’t go,’ he said.
‘Come with me,’ she said.
‘I can’t,’ he said.
Just then, she heard a shot. He was already dead before he hit the pavement. The Eumenides had got him.
The row back across the ocean was long and arduous, but far easier than the swim. As the air got warmer, as the sun got brighter, Pneumonia thought of her friends and the beautiful Island and couldn’t wait to be back. She hoped she had not been gone too long. In her mind’s eye, she saw a crowd of happy baboons, jumping up and down when they see the reams and reams of paper. She and they would run together, they would groom each other, they would swim in the blue lagoon.
When she made land, the devastation of the beach shocked her. It was littered with bones, and the bones were half‐covered with sand. She lay on the beach with the useless printer paper still in the boat, and cried and cried for her friends. For the baboons here, for the baboons there, for Typhus, for all the children shot out of the sky. She looked to the horizon, to Eternity, so cheerful, so blue, and felt the big universe. She had saved no one, and to Eternity, that was just fine.
Two days later, one baboon came to greet her. A tiny old male, who had hid during the murders. The baboon had pulled out all his hair, had hot spots all over his flanks. Nervous licking. Nervous licking. Nervous licking. The old baboon was mad.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked the baboon.
‘I don’t have a name,’ he said.
‘Can I call you Dick?’ He nodded. She changed her name to Jane.
They roasted bananas and fish on the beach.
Your professors were wrong. Thanks for the story.