The Tiny Horses

 TinyHorses11.11.12

The tiny horses were a birthday present from my ex, code name Jericho, who is an undercover agent with the Animal Liberation Front. He found them in a research facility in Wyoming, spray-painted the video cameras and hacked the security system. No one saw him, allegedly. He’d put them in a giant dog crate filled with hay, replenished at a variety of random farms along the way. The drive back to Maine, in the back of an old red-orange Chevy pickup, took just under two days, with Jericho following the speed limit all the way.

Jericho had Googled them back in North Platte, Nebraska, and learned that they ate leaves. He tried different kinds and found that in general they seemed to like quaking aspen the most, so he picked a couple of bucketfuls, but the horses still looked a little wizened by the time they got to Portland.

I wanted to kill him when he brought me these strange animals. A hell of a birthday present. Hi honey, here are some exotic prehistoric horses. They aren’t worth thousands or millions or billions. No, they are priceless as love.

He’d done this kind of thing before. Friends throughout the country had been gifted with rabbits, monkeys, dogs, cats and rats. It was just because he couldn’t take them all, you see. He already had his own sideshow going, which included a blind dog named Banjo with a plate in its head, an irascible monkey, and an assortment of traumatized cats and rabbits. But there were always more animals, which he twisted into birthday presents, an evil in its own way, but not nearly as terrible as the researchers who’d been poking around in prehistoric DNA and had come up with this. He was hard to refuse.

After a few days the god-awful bleating subsided and they calmed down. They were adorable little monsters, each weighing less than my cat Barney, who absolutely terrified them for the first week. Bleating cuddly shitting little things, covered in soft mottled fur, with thick necks and ancient shiny eyes that gradually took on an affectionate luster. But it took time.

It was summer, thank god, and I would go out at dusk and work around the edges of houses, gathering the different kinds of leaves I had checked were not poisonous to animals, as if I were gardening, except they were not my houses and not my gardens. I was stared at plenty, with my black trash bag full of branches (which the little horses liked to gnaw), stalks and leaves, and I was approached a few times with some hostility, but since there were no roses, no flowers, no vegetables in my bags – only leaves and branches – what could anyone say? I’d just been giving them some free pruning, no harm at all.

My big fantasy was to move to the country where Willie and Mona could romp around behind a big fence, no neighbors for miles, but there were many obstacles between me and that plan. Still, I told it to them over and over as we lay on the bed with the cat they had grown used to and accepted, the sultry breezes swelling the curtains, the sounds of the city drifting through our minds. I’d have Willie on one side, Mona on the other, both cuddled up to me as I stroked their silken coats and toyed with their rough stubby manes, and watched their shiny trusting eyes grow sleepy. We’d all drift off, the cat wedged amongst us somehow, sweet horsey breath and soft quivering muzzles prickled with tiny whiskers, little legs and hoof-shaped paws with their four toes folded up under them like portable chairs.

It would have been nice to trick them out with little red harnesses and teeny bells and walk them around the block past the cozy German restaurant, the daycare and the Living Church Center, or take them to frolic in Deering Oaks, but that would have led straight to CNN, ABC and possibly prison.

These miraculous creatures weighed ten pounds apiece and followed me around whinnying and whickering, sporting, licking, playfully baring their tiny teeth, though they never nipped me or Barney – only each other. Their tiny feet made a light clatter, so I got some thick pile rug remnants that I nailed to the floor, which was definitely against the lease but not nearly as against the lease as owning two tiny prehistoric horses.

Their little coats grew shaggier in September. I stocked up on leaves, storing huge bags in the basement with white labels marked DO NOT THROW AWAY – APT 9. And they had learned to like other greens – spinach and kale especially. They were very smart. So smart, in fact, that I taught them to play chess, first with me and then with each other. They moved the pieces with their teeth, using great delicacy. It helped them pass the time when I was at work. They might have learned to read as well. I read to them every night, and on occasion found books in odd places.

Obviously guests were out of the question. I kept to myself even more than before. No way would I ever breathe a word about this to anyone. Who could I trust? Jericho had disappeared, probably on an ambitious new crusade. As for the theft itself, there was never a whisper on the news. They weren’t supposed to be doing that stuff in the first place. They were originally the size of dogs, you know. They grew smaller because of climate change. And eventually they became extinct. Human babies have been getting bigger, I’ve heard. But it’s just a matter of time for us as well. I worry about them a lot, what will happen. Especially once Mona has the babies I suspect she’s carrying. Because then I will be solely responsible for the fate of three or four Sifrhippus sandrae , the only ones in all the big wide world.

Story and artwork copywright 2012 by Annie Seikonia

Published in Issue #9 of Structo , a British literary magazine.

The Chemistry of Tears

The Canard Digérateur, or Digesting Duck, by Jacques de Vaucanson, 1739

The “Canard Digérateur,” or Digesting Duck, by Jacques de Vaucanson, 1739

I recently read Peter Carey’s latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears. What drew my attention was the automaton at the heart of the story. Automatons, puppets, magicians and dolls fascinate me, as they have the fiction writer Stephen Millhauser, who has devoted a great deal of prose to them (the movie The Illusionist is based on one of his stories). A few years ago, I read Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life by British journalist Gaby Wood. It is a cultural account of the history of robotics, from ingenious inventions to outlandish hoaxes, including observations on film and cinema and a talking doll invented by Edison. It also goes a bit off-topic in its chronicle of the Doll Family, a group of circus midgets (or living dolls) who toured in a circus and appeared in The Wizard of Oz. The popularity of the fantasy life of hobbits comes to mind as well.

The German poet Heinrich von Kleist wrote eloquently about the poignancy of artifice in his famous essay “About Marionettes”:

“ ‘ We have seen that in proportion as reflection dims and weakens in the organic world the more radiant and commanding grace emerges. As the line which intersects another will continue through infinity only to find itself back before its starting point, on the other side of the line intersected, and the concave mirror after casting an image through infinity suddenly displays it immediately before us, just so knowledge must traverse an infinity before grace reappears. And for this reason grace is greatest in those whose bodies are totally devoid of self-consciousness or where it is infinite, that is, in the mannequin or the god.’ ”

Rainer Maria Rilke was famously disquieted by dolls. (“Are we not strange creatures to let ourselves go and indeed to place our earliest affections where they remain hopeless?”) For Baudelaire, toys were pathways to imagination and art.

In Carey’s braided novel, the heroine Catherine Gehrig, an horologist at the Swinburne museum in England, is tasked with restoring a 19th century duck (which winds up becoming a swan) that was originally commissioned by a wealthy Englishman named Henry Brandling, who travels to Germany in search of an artisan who can reconstruct the original plan invented by M. Vaucanson (such a duck by such a personage actually existed). The duck is meant as a gift for his consumptive son. Brandling magically believes the project will ensure his son’s mortality. The narrative is braided between Catherine’s raging grief over the death of her long-time married lover, a fellow conservator at the museum, and colorful excerpts from Brandling’s journals. The name Brandling sumptuously evokes “candling” and “brandy,” a name perfect for a patron who sets in motion (animates) an exploration into the mysterious territories of life, love and illusion.

It is thrilling novel; sadly the descriptions of the relationship between Catherine and her recently deceased love, Matthew, a coupling that runs like an artery through the narrative, ring false, and is the novel’s greatest flaw. The 13-year tryst is meant to evoke the heights of passion, a once-in-a-lifetime, soul-mate bonding. Unfortunately, the cloying renderings of this great love sound adolescent at best. Perhaps such Edenic renderings are meant to express how love is another kind of illusion, but in this context they sound hopelessly naïve and sadly unrealistic, somewhat dulling the power of the story.

Still, the tale compelled me. There is something both sacrilegious and riveting about the animation of inanimate objects, the melding of art, science and craftsmanship reflected in clocks, puppets and automatons, not to mention computers and robots. This theme is echoed in The Chemistry of Tears, with its occasional hints of the dark side of inventive genius – the internal combustion engine, for example, which has meant liberation of one kind, destruction of another. The book is framed against the backdrop of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (“an ‘accident’ that seemed the end of history itself.’ ”). A lesser but notable exegesis can be made of the ways in which bureaucracies are infiltrated by personal emotions and agendas.

An aside, excerpted from Norbert Weiner’s Cybernetics, published in 1948: “At every stage of technique…the ability of the artificer to produce a working simulacrum of a living organism has always intrigued people. This desire to produce and study automata has always been expressed in the living technique of the age. In the days of magic, we have the bizarre and sinister concept of the Golem, that figure of clay into which the rabbi of Prague breathed life with the blasphemy of the Ineffable Name of God. In the time of Newton, the automaton becomes the clockwork music box, with the little effigies pirouetting stiffly on top. In the nineteenth century, the automaton is a glorified heat engine, burning some combustible fuel instead of the glycogen of the human muscles. Finally, the present automaton opens doors by means of photocells, (see intelligent building) or points guns to the place at which a radar beam picks up an airplane, or computes the solution of a differential equation.” Weinder is widely regarded as the originator of cybernetics:

Back to the novel. Cat’s assistant, Amanda, is brilliant, and somewhat insane (or is she?), as a result of dabbling in these confluences of science, magic and technology. “Lucifer is very beautiful,” she observes. Add an obsessive 19th century genius named Sumper and a child-prodigy named Carl (who may or may not be Karl Benz, the German engineer who invented the world’s first practical automobile), and you have a rousing tale combined with a philosophical meditation on the nature of the universe:

“I saw below me lakes and seas on the surface of which I beheld living beings which I cannot properly describe. They had systems for locomotion similar to those of the sea horse. They moved from place to place by six extremely thin membranes, which they used as wings.”

“You are wholly unable to associate what you see with what your life has taught you.”

And best of all: “Those beings who are before you now, who appear to you almost as imperfect as the lowly zoophytes, have a sphere of sensibility and intellect far superior to the inhabitants of this earth.”

“. . . there were mechanisms beyond human knowledge. . . systems we could never know, worlds we had seen and forgotten. If animals possessed senses of a different nature from our own, how would we know? Those creatures, despised by us, might have sources of information we cannot dream exist.”

Modern instruments of technology such as the Mac, the thumb drive, digital photography, MP3 files, and a “Frankenpod” are contrasted with the riveting of seven hundred pieces of metal into five chains that animate the swan. The final motto (of the commission, the restoration, and the novel itself), inscribed in Latin on the swan’s silver beak, is, fittingly, “Illud aspicis non vides: You cannot see what you see.” How does technology improve or impair us? What have we sacrificed to achieve it? It is timely to read and write of these things, especially given the recent viral obsession with the latest end-of-the-world prophesy. The truth is that the world begins and ends every day. Therein lies our tragedy, and our hope.

Automaton Writing a Letter in the Swiss Museum CIMA (Centre International de la Mécanique d'Art)

“Automaton Writing a Letter,” Swiss Museum CIMA (Centre International de la Mécanique d’Art), 

An Evening with Tom Perrotta

This week I had the privilege of hearing novelist Tom Perrotta read at SPACE Gallery as part of the Telling Room‘s reading series.  He read a selection from his novel Little Children.  The writing was impressive, the characters described precisely, with the kind of small details and accurate observations that bring prose to vivid life.  The excerpt was written largely from the point of view of a mother with a young child and the voice was completely authentic.  Ah, the magic of writing.

I can’t wait to read The Leftovers, his latest novel about a seemingly random rapture-style mass disappearance of people . During the Q & A afterwards, Perrotta had intriguing tales of converting fiction to film.  He also said one way to approach the challenge of writing about an unlikeable character is to see and write about him or her through another character’s eyes.  And isn’t this at the heart of great writing — the need to depict complex personalities, situations and environments with mastery?  Fine writing embodies genuine truths that can’t be faked. The process is both tedious and exhilarating.

In commenting about his stint as a series editor of the 2012 Best American Stories he talked about the evolution of modern fiction, from the tomes of Pynchon to the sparer styles of Richard Ford, Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, followed by the subsequent return of denser work best embodied by David Foster Wallace.  He cited Alice Munro as an example of a successful short story author who appeals to him for her plain style and her looseness of story, as well as her ability to bring novelistic techniques to a shorter form.   It was a most delightful evening.

Afterwards I enjoyed checking out his website, which features a colorful chronology of his career, which included an “Easy Rider” phase and jobs collecting garbage and working as a clerk at a storage company.  His novel Election, which was subsequently made into a successful movie, took six years to get published.  This gives me hope.