Undergrowth, p.1

Undergrowth, page 1



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  Flossmoor, Illinois 60422


  © 2017 Nancy Burke

  All rights reserved. Published 2017.

  ISBNs: 978-0-9861541-6-4 (paperback); 978-0-9861541-7-1 (Mobipocket); 978-0-9861541-8-8 (epub); 978-0-9861541-9-5 (PDF)

  LCCN: 2017940163

  Cover design by Christian Fuenfhausen. Text design and composition by Karen Sheets de Gracia in the Malaga typeface.

  Printed in the United States of America

  21 20 19 18 17 1 2 3 4 5

  ∞ This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper)

  For Steve




  THERE WAS A stand of short, craggy trees with leaves like cupped hands that filled with water in the rain and held it, forming pools that were already teeming with life by the time the rain subsided. All the rest of the afternoon, as if the trees had burst forth into blossom, a thousand civilizations, each different from the rest, grew in those small ponds, depending upon which insect had landed where, or which spore had fallen. They flourished until the sun dried them up, and left their residues in the leaves’ thick palms, to be dissolved by rain the next day.

  In the forest, there are plants that grow with such speed and force that they might be mistaken for animals, and others that grow so slowly they might as well be stones. Each has a heart with an audible beat—a single strand in an infinite density of sound—as well as its own form of silence. The pulse of their vibrations pushes up through the human stem, moving us toward and away from what we love.

  To say that Larry was unsure as he boarded the plane for Rio would have been inaccurate. Rather, he was compelled to follow a certain course, and yet had sufficient self-awareness to understand that although compulsion seems, on the surface, the embodiment of purpose, it is also always blind. He was being thrown, or carried, or held, and thus was freed from the necessity of looking forward, as a child in its mother’s arms can allow its eyes to wander. His uncle, James, who was already engrossed in a magazine, sat to his right, and beyond him sat a row of strangers with their heads bowed, each of whom struck him as distasteful. Their stillness seemed to him to convey passivity and compliance, in stark contrast to the stillness of their reflections in the window, which seemed almost holy as they spread out, translucent, over the dark carpet of the earth. His freshman roommate had jokingly called him a misanthrope, which had upset him; far from being incapable of human love, he was so deeply sensitive to it that he could be swept away by a scent, or a reflection in a window, and true human contact could easily overwhelm him. James, however, had no such sensitivities, and threw himself into the thick of one scene after another. The nephew and uncle complemented each other; they understood each other with a sort of sharp intuition, and would have looked forward to planning many future adventures together, except that the uncle was dying.

  “Do what you have to do,” said James, looking up from his magazine with resigned amusement as Larry started to unbuckle his knapsack. “When you’re ready, I have something to show you.”

  “In a minute,” said Larry. He began to arrange his possessions on the floor by his shoes, on his tray table, and between his leg and the arm of his seat. He lined up his books, then pulled them into his lap and started again. When you are headed south, as they were, you cannot afford the illusion of a magical relationship to time that travelers to Europe have, in which the duration of night seems miraculously tied to the length of the trip. Rather, time is resolute, particularly when you know that the first flight will be the prelude to a series of longer and longer ones that cover progressively less ground. Larry remembered this, even though he had last made the trip to Pahquel eight years ago, when he was just eleven. He remembered endless plane rides, endless waits for planes, waits in hot, shabby offices for tickets, or visas, or permits, or directions; rides on buses, sandwiched between people and packs and goats, interminable rides in carts, on leaky boats in the pouring rain; rides in cars that broke down more often than they ran. That he had a clear sense of interminability made it all the more urgent that he arrange the space around him with deliberate economy. When he was a boy, he would fantasize about how he might set up his belongings in a smaller and smaller space, in a space the size of his bedroom, or a bathroom, or a shower stall. He would build a shelf at the very top of the stall for his guitar, which would just fit diagonally, a shelf for his clothes, a shelf for food, and two shelves for books. Were he ever to end up in a concentration camp, he knew exactly how he would arrange his things along the side of his tiny corner of sleeping space, or underneath the planks in the floor. Fluency in the language of space, invincibility in regard to it, allowed him respite from whatever impending sense of helplessness he felt in the face of time.

  “Just let me know when you’re ready,” said James again, more eager for his attention now, but also still amused. James tended to fill the space available to him with his own body, which seemed to inflate until it pushed against the confines of whatever held him. Larry had always thought, growing up, that his uncle’s capacity to fill a void was simply the result of his bulky, haphazardly proportioned, six-foot-three-inch frame, but now here he was, so much diminished and yet still so physically voluble, hanging over the armrest that divided their two countries, unaware of the borders he was crossing. In fact, James possessed little that wasn’t a part of his own body; his shaving kit, his bedroll, his few articles of clothing, all had become melded to him after years of use. They even came to smell like him, so that as Larry began to turn the pages of the handwritten notebook James laid out in front of him, he had the sense of being saturated by it as he read.

  “There it is!” James said in Pahqua, nodding towards the book.

  “There it is!” Larry repeated.

  “When you have that in your hands, it’s like you’re holding the one bird,” said James, using a Pahqua figure of speech. On the first page, over pencil lines drawn with a clearly dented ruler, he had written: “Pahqua: A Dictionary of Grammar and Definitions by James Lawrence Ardmore.” James searched Larry’s face for a sign of awe and found it, though an onlooker would have only seen the nephew wince.

  “Amazing to see it all together, isn’t it? An entire civilization! An entire life’s work!”

  “Amazing,” said Larry in English.

  Larry couldn’t tell his uncle that it wasn’t the notebook but the sound of the words that had amazed him. When had Pahqua ceased to have a sound? Before their first trip, and during the year after it, before Larry had started junior high, and before James had left, they spoke all the time. They would sit at the dinner table at Larry’s house and ask each other to pass the meat in Pahqua; they would reminisce in Pahqua. His parents never showed the slightest curiosity, or even irritation, at their exclusion. They spoke a few words to each other while Larry and James were talking, and it seemed to Larry in retrospect that their conversation was equally impenetrable and foreign.

  Then James disappeared—to Alaska, as far from the Amazon as he could get—and there was no one left to talk to, and the memory of Pahqua eroded until the language itself seemed to have less and less to do with sound and more to do with a sensation, in his stomach or his head, a pure intention which he knew before he spoke it. That he would never again, he could only assume, meet another living soul who even knew of Pahqua, let alone could understand it, rendered it even more intimately suited to him. Because he was as desperate for solitude as for communion, it was enough that it made possible an internal dialogue, a sort of instantaneous translation or reinterpretation of his thoughts, and thus a sense of confirmation, simultaneously from deep inside himself and from a great distance away. To hear James’s v
oice confused all that, and yet also stirred in him something else, an onrush of gratitude or relief, over what he couldn’t say.

  The notebook was divided into three sections separated by sheets of heavy red cardboard, and each section was filled with pages written in awkward capital letters on hand-ruled lines. There was something desperate, Larry knew, in the makeup of someone who would spend eight years, off and on, in a freezing cabin in Alaska, trapping squirrels to fend off starvation and painstakingly transcribing the contents of an entire duffel bag filled with scraps of paper—corners ripped from government documents and pages ripped from books, their margins filled to the edges with tiny lettering—into a cardboard binder. That it was the product of such a powerful irrational force commanded the sort of reverence one felt for nature, and that the force originated in James made the reverence personal.

  “It’s yours now,” said James in Pahqua. “It’s all I have.”

  Larry closed the notebook. He crossed his arms over it, holding it against his chest, and felt it pull him forward, as though it were a hook that held him, and the reel was hidden somewhere in Pahquel.

  Up and down the aisles, lights were being switched off, like the lights in the houses on a street. By midnight, only Larry and James and a few scattered others were awake, their isolated beacons suggesting watchfulness or sleepless yearning. But Larry and James harbored reasons not to think about phantoms such as yearning, and avoided confusion by rationalizing their decision to fly together halfway around the world, at an expense neither could afford, James having pleaded to his sister that he needed Larry to help him finish documenting the language before he died, and Larry implying that he needed to gather data for his thesis. No one can afford not to give reasons, particularly at those times when they have the least bearing. But despite all reasons, it would have been hard for an outsider not to see the two of them as ridiculous, as dreamers, engaged in a desperate search for something they were each destined to find and lose again and again. By the time James reached up at last and turned off their overhead lights, all pretense to reason had long fallen away, and they each felt brush against their skin, for a moment before they slept, the rough weave of disappointment and fulfillment from which the cloak of fate is sewn.


  IN PAHQUEL, THERE were certain gods who could take a joke and others who were so easily offended that their names couldn’t even be spoken without some small or terrible consequence, and everyone knew which ones were which. Only James, who in three hands of appearances still confused Saptir and Saratir, called out the older god’s name and yet still came and went, rain after rain, with the blessings of the living and the dead. In fact, by the way they traded insults—James sang his name into the wrong places in songs and Saptir sent a ripe Pura fruit down on him, so that his hair dripped green with the reeking pulp—they had to have been of common blood. At least that’s what Asator said, and he had more reason than anyone to know.


  LOOKING LIKE A modern-day Quichotte and Panza, wearing rumpled clothing and contrasting expressions, arrayed in a comically heroic pose (the taller one pointing out toward the street in front of them with an improbably long arm), James and his nephew stood at the curb of a busy intersection in Rio amid an island of packs and duffel bags.

  “Why not just take a taxi?” Larry asked quietly, for the third time, in the same tone he had used before, to emphasize his conviction that he was doomed to ask the same question endlessly.

  “Do you remember where Rua Caldwell crosses Valadones?” asked James, without turning to look at him. “I thought it was up this way,” he said, scratching his head with his hand, and pointing now with his elbow.

  “Why not just take a taxi?” asked Larry.

  “Maybe we’ll have to ask someone,” said James, slowly lowering his arm as he turned around. “You’re looking dismal,” he said, suddenly noticing Larry.

  “I’m tired,” said Larry.

  “All right. Let’s hit the road,” said James, reaching for his pack. “I’m sure I know where I’m going.”

  “Why not just take a taxi?” said Larry.

  “Yes,” said James, and hailed one.

  The inside of the cab didn’t so much offer protection from the noise and chaos of the streets as it provided an alternative chaos of its own. James leaned forward and embraced the empty seat in front of him, gesturing first with one hand and then the other, talking to the driver in a Portuguese that, Larry had no doubt, made up for its inaccuracy by virtue of its volume and speed. Larry leaned back and looked at the vinyl ceiling, which was oozing tufts of once white padding through its cracks. Every so often, James turned and pointed out some landmark to Larry in English, and Larry commented on it weakly, without raising his head. James was full of emotion, overcome by relief that the city remembered him after all, as he concluded by virtue of the fact that he remembered it. “My youth! My youth!” he said mockingly to Larry over his shoulder.

  Were it Larry’s reunion rather than James’s, he would have been horrified to see how much was changed, or missing, and to resent everything new as a blot on some part of his past. Even now, he felt overwhelmed by the number and intrusive power of the new smells that swirled inside the cab despite the windows being open so that anything that wasn’t glued down seemed to be gesturing frantically, and scraps of paper were pulled loose from the rubber bands on the visors and sucked out the windows with a snap. In the thick whirlpool of body odors and the smells of metal fittings rubbing together, of hair grease, of old cigarettes, Larry searched for something comforting, and was disappointed. James, meanwhile, found in the sight of the cathedral, encroached upon on all sides by novelty and disintegration, only further proof of the solidity of things. To James, the more improbable the survival of the familiar, the more significant, and thus incontrovertible. It was for this reason that when they at last reached their destination, the home of one Silvio Amanza, longtime friend of James Ardmore, former sertanista, fellow agent of the Indian Protection Service and himself survivor of many life-threatening situations, James expected Silvio to register only delight in the discovery, after all this time, of their mutual capacity to endure.

  “Why, it’s half my dearest friend!” Silvio shouted in Portuguese, jumping up as they came in, staring hard at James.

  “I’ll trim an inch off your mustache!” bellowed James, embracing Silvio while Larry stood outside their circle holding a bag in each hand.

  “Oh, my God! It’s Larry!” Silvio shouted, breaking away. Larry felt his body grow rigid at the sound of the old name. “It’s Larry!” Silvio moved forward to embrace him, but Larry held up his bags, blocking his access. “Sorry! So sorry!” shouted Silvio, taking the bags and placing them at Larry’s feet. He grasped Larry by the shoulders and planted a kiss on each cheek. “Look at you! A grown man! Are you thirsty? Are you hungry? What can I get you?” he blurted at Larry in heavily accented English. But before Larry could answer, Silvio had turned back to James, leaving him alone.

  Larry lowered himself into a wooden lounge chair. A small rotating fan sat in one corner on a low wooden stool, and when its stream of air brushed over them, the leaves that reached out from the walls like hands moved as one in a wave. Had it been absent of people and chairs, the space might have been intimate, but only artificially so, for the lights that peered through the canopy of leaves were not stars, but from surrounding skyscrapers, and the sounds that intruded, so that voices had to be raised, were urban sounds, tangled rather than layered.

  “Where have you been? Where have you been?” Silvio was shouting at James despite standing within a foot of him and shaking him by the arms. “Until Claudio called to tell us you were coming, we thought you were dead!” He stopped suddenly, as though struck by the irony, but didn’t back away.

  “You know how I am—I go and I come. I come and I go,” said James, striking a match, holding it so close to Silvio that it looked like he was lighting the end of Silvio’s nose rather than his own cig

  “Okay, so out with it—what’s your crazy plan?” said Silvio, leaning in and blowing out the match. “I think I know, but I want to hear it from the horse’s mouth.” From across the courtyard, Larry watched Silvio and James each pull against one end of their conversation as though it were a rope they were drawing taut between them, so that each assertion on the part of one was felt in the shoulder, in the spine, of the other.

  “We get to Santarem on Sunday, and we’ll call Jorge when we get there. By then, I’m sure you’ll have been able to dig up one last assignment for me,” said James. “I just want the chance to go on one last assignment. And I’m taking Larry with me on it, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now.”

  “I’ve beat you to it there,” said Silvio. “I spoke to Jorge yesterday. I have something all set up for you.”

  “Now, I still remember how to make my own calls,” said James. “I can talk to Jorge myself. Don’t you forget what a resourceful guy I am.”

  Larry followed their conversation with his body, leaning first toward the one and then the other. Only when James ran off suddenly to the bathroom with Silvio behind him did Larry lean back in his chair. He inhaled slowly, scanning the patio to be sure he was alone, but as he watched, the face of Silvio reemerged and loomed from the darkness beyond the doorway like a genie forming out of clouds in the sky. It floated forward, extending its over-muscled Popeye arms outward like an overblown parade balloon.

  “So my man!” Silvio said, grasping Larry’s shoulders. With a dramatic nod, he reached into his shirt pocket and drew out a piece of paper. He leaned forward and transferred the paper to Larry’s front pocket, patting it closed.

  “Call me if you need me,” he whispered in English, with the approximate volume of another man’s speech. “And keep this with you.” He moved away, and then even closer. “And don’t forget!” he said in full voice, gesturing with his head toward James, who was reentering the porch from the same black doorway. “We love each other, he and I, you know?”

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