Where are we?
How did we come here?
Where are we going?
And anyway, who lies sleeping here with us?
Wherever that is—
I mean—wherever we are.
To begin: the Burrow is a low mound that rises out of the ground. It rests on what would be, if not for the Burrow itself, a vacant lot on the edge of town, though not the farthest edge. On one end of the lot, on the west side of the Burrow, and far enough away so there are no drainage problems, is a small pond. What kind of pond? Picture a body of water about the size of a supermarket parking lot, with stands of cattails, frogs, tadpoles, and such, plus various insects, both on the water and flying above it. This pond grows larger in spring and in summer shrinks to the size of, say, a convenience store parking lot. In the fall and winter it stays somewhere roughly between the two extremes. On its eastern shore is a tree, possibly a cypress, but possibly something else entirely. A sad fact about the people who live in this town is that nobody knows much of anything about the names of trees.
Still, like so many other things in the world, this particular burrow is more than its name implies. This burrow has people living in it. It has five or six tenants, depending on how many of its apartments are rented at any given time, because, as you probably guessed, the Burrow is really an apartment building, and although it isn’t called “the Burrow” in any formal sense—it’s never had any formal name at all—it was the Burrow’s neighbors, the very same ones who can’t seem to tell one tree from another, who called it that back when it was first constructed. So to this day, whether out of affection or derision, “the Burrow” is how people, including those who live inside it, refer to the place. And while it’s true that some of the children in the neighborhood say the Burrow is scary, no one offers any specifics. It’s the kind of place that children like to pretend is scary on principle. It’s part of being a child, and certainly that doesn’t stop those same children from playing in the pond next to it when school isn’t in session, albeit giving the Burrow a glance from time to time to make sure there’s nothing frightening rushing toward them from it as they play.
So picture a mound of dirt with things growing out of the top, plants, new shoots, weeds, but having a front door, and you are picturing the Burrow.
Meanwhile, inside the Burrow, Jeffery is thinking this: Suppose a person spent his whole life being way ahead of the curve, was Überbrilliant, far in front of every other person in the world who was also working on whatever problem this first person was working on, so incredibly advanced, et cetera, et cetera, that those in his dust were totally blind to the fact there was even anyone out in front of them? They would look, of course, but all they would see was a big dust cloud, without having the slightest idea what was causing it. And correspondingly, when the genius, or whatever you want to call him, looked behind, and squinted through the dust of his own making, those others weren’t visible.
But then, Jeffery thinks, one day, maybe thirty or forty years after this genius first embarked on his journey and the dust from the cloud settled, he happened to look back once again, and this time, because there wasn’t any more dust at all, he could see for sure there was nobody following him. There was only an empty plain, or road, or stage, or whatever you want to call it. In other words, whoever had been back there trailing after him must have taken a whole different path, or several different paths. So there he was—wherever “there” was—completely alone. But here’s the thing: out of all those people who, a long time ago, were working on the same idea as he was, nobody cared. Every one of them had moved on to other projects, much better and more timely ones, and as a result, the genius was not ahead of anyone anymore. He’d been totally forgotten and whatever he might have done, whatever he did, meant nothing. Zero.
And as for this supposed genius, what word would Jeffery use to describe him?
Jeffery is in his midthirties and has hair the color of untoasted whole-wheat sandwich bread. He’s still in fairly good shape because he exercises every day—squats, sit-ups, push-ups—right next to his bed first thing every morning. Though he’s starting to develop a little pot on his stomach, it’s not unusual for his age. He tells himself he needs to lay off the starch, but hasn’t gotten around to it. It’s not that big a deal.
Also: in addition to the problem with identifying their trees, none of the town’s inhabitants seem to be able to pronounce the name of their own town, St. Nils.
That is, they can and do pronounce it in one of two ways: Saint Niles, like the river, or Nils, which rhymes with pills, but it appears they have no idea which one is correct.
The fact is, it was Raymond who inspired this idea of the alleged genius-person-so-far-ahead-of-everyone-else to pop into Jeffery’s head, and Jeffery’s first Raymond-as-a-genius thought came when he was smack in the middle of Raymond’s living room in the Burrow, sitting on Raymond’s couch surrounded by a humongous number of decoys: on wall shelves, on tables, even lined up along the baseboards. Raymond had carved each one, and now, apparently, he waited for some mysterious future event to move them out of there. In addition to the finished decoys there were also several piles of lumber for future decoys. There were also open cans of paint leaking fumes and smelling up the place—not a bad smell, but, well . . . paint, and of course Raymond was living in the middle of all this.
Then Raymond sat down on the recliner opposite the couch and made it recline by means of a lever on one side. Next, he took off his right shoe, propped his right foot up on the part of the recliner that had turned into a little platform, and allowed his left foot, its shoe still on, to rest quietly on the rug.
So while it was clear that Raymond had a vision, Jeffery still had a hard time working out precisely what vision that might be.
Is he a genius or a complete idiot?
And, for that matter, what would you call Jeffery for thinking all of this?
And yet there is something troubling about the Burrow, something hard to name, maybe something about the low shadow it casts on the vacant lot around sunset, or maybe the smell of its walls after a November rain, so maybe the children—bless them— are right to keep their distance.
Because Raymond is a big guy, and gentle, and his head is big and gentle, too, with dark brown hair like burnt whole-wheat toast, and frizzy, the kind of hair a person might want to lean their own head against if he or she were tired, but if they did they would be disappointed because what they would be leaning on would be Raymond’s skull, which is very hard. As hard as a wooden decoy, a person who leaned his or her head against it might be thinking.
Meanwhile: outside the Burrow, new shoots of trees, new wood, reach out of the ground, toward air, toward sun, toward something they can’t actually see, something they have no way to be sure is even there.
What was Raymond’s reaction to Jeffery’s explanation of the dust cloud and the person making it? It was to settle deeper into his recliner and shut his eyes. Finally, after about five minutes, Raymond spoke. “Like jets,” he said, and proceeded to peel a Band-Aid from his finger and stare at the cut underneath, which Jeffery thought probably came from making decoys—a sliver or a slip of the knife. The skin beneath the Band-Aid was pale and puckered, not like skin at all, but more like those Styrofoam pellets people use for packing.
“Are you okay?” Jeffery asked. “And what do you mean, ‘like jets’?”
Raymond stuck the Band-Aid back where it was. “Like once upon a time,” he said, “there must have been some crazy old aeronautical engineer somewhere who spent his whole life thinking as hard as he could about how to get propeller planes to speed up, maybe by making bigger propellers, or shorter wings, or both, or whatever it would take, and let’s say that in the end he figured out exactly the way to do it; let’s say that he increased the speed by fifty or a hundred miles an hour, which nobody ever imagined could be done by anybody, so the guy was a genius. But in the meantime, somebody else had invented jets.”
“Oh,” Jeffery said, because he had to give Raymond credit: the man, no matter what else he was, was full of surprises, and even after Madeline left him to be with Viktor, Raymond stayed friends with Jeffery.
Because it was also true that before Madeline left Raymond to be with Viktor, she left Jeffery to be with Raymond.
Which made the two of them buddies in a way. Losers.
The winner being Viktor, of course.
Though terms such as “winner” and “loser” are pretty much irrelevant in the Burrow.
Madeline also lives in the Burrow, as well as Heather and Viktor. There used to be another guy—Louis, his name was—but he moved out in the middle of the night awhile ago, and now his room is empty.
Maybe if they put a big sign out in front, Jeffery thinks, and officially called the building “The Burrow,” then the place would be overrun with Middle Earth-o-philes, and the landlord, or whatever faceless real estate holding company actually owns this place, wouldn’t be having this vacancy problem. On the other hand, is it his problem, or even a problem?
Does Jeffery really want to have to get to know a new tenant and then have to set boundaries with him or her?
On the other hand: Who was it among the Burrow’s current crop of residents who called her fellow renters “a lonely, fucked-up group of individuals”?
That would be Madeline. She has red hair and once Viktor described her, correctly, as “a hot tamale.”
Tocar: to touch.
Meaning the fur beneath and between the fingers, meaning the warmth of skin beneath the fur, the pulse of blood, the sleeping house of muscle, its patient throb against the hand, the hand connected to that which is the other, meaning the self outside the self, the self mysterious in the way we cannot ever be a mystery to ourselves, the self known through touching others in the way we ourselves can never be known, the self outside the self, of it being touched, of our being connected, for once not alone but a part, for once no different, for once at home in a world where we are never at home, for once ourselves, remembering, wherever we may be.
To the St. Nils Eagle
I have been noticing for quite a while various problems associated with the use of firearms in this country. At the same time I cannot ignore the fact that, with crime rates being what they are, home protection is also an issue. Today I am writing because I believe there is a way to solve both problems at the same time. Namely, people should give serious thought to requiring every household in the land to have at least one crossbow on its premises, both for sport and as a deterrent factor. Here are the reasons I believe such legislation, if enacted, might reverse the trends of death by firearms and also the increasing dangers of home intrusions: 1) To load a crossbow requires a fair amount of physical strength, thus cutting down on any possibility of misuse by children, old people, or invalids. 2) Crossbows, being made of wood, are ecologically superior, and certainly do not carry with them the stigmata of cop-killer bullets and the discharge of poisonous gases or lead into the atmosphere. 3) The time it takes to pull back the string, and then to put an arrow (or bolt) in place, while not long, can provide a much-needed “cooling off” period in cases of a disagreement or domestic violence situations. 4) When necessary, they are deadly.
Many residents of the neighborhood say the Burrow has its origin in the Cold War, or even earlier, during the Second World War. Purportedly, the government built it back then as a secret place to hide officials if the fighting got too close. But to counter that theory: Why would the government build a place like that for only six people? And which six could they have been?
Others say that the Burrow has its origin in some sort of geological formation, a swelling in the earth that the builders simply used to make their job easier, digging down, in the natural direction of gravity, instead of building unnaturally upward. Then they installed plumbing, ran electrical lines, and plastered over walls of dirt. It is cool in summer, people say, and warm in winter, and they are right.
But there are still others who contend that the Burrow is not that old at all. They posit that its origin was as the entrance of a tunnel dug to smuggle drugs, or possibly humans—though from where to where is never specified. In any case, this faction claims that someone, probably a relative of one of the agents who exposed the operation, bought the vacant lot cheap, then took advantage of the considerable improvements that had already been made by the crime lords, and turned it into its present configuration of underground apartments, renting them out at an exceedingly reasonable rate.
Clearly, this is a lot of speculation by a group of people who can’t even bother to learn the names of their own trees. At the same time however, everyone agrees that one benefit to living there is that, possibly because the presence of the Burrow does not exactly announce itself to any criminal type, there has never been a break-in or a burglary in all the years of its existence. In other words, the Burrow is safe, and no matter what individual complaints its residents may have, they report feeling protected from the kind of harm they have felt in the places they lived before they arrived at the Burrow.
It has been many years since the Captain was at sea, expertly piloting his giant ocean liner, the Valhalla Queen, in and out of fjords as contented passengers lined its decks to snap photos of icebergs, glaciers, and baby seals before racing inside to the ship’s dining room to wolf down their sixth or seventh gourmet buffet of the day. Worthless, degenerate swine, the Captain used to mutter into the sleeve of his handsome dark-blue uniform, taking care that no one heard him. Then, as often as not, following his dinner at “The Captain’s Table,” the Captain hurried to the simple good taste of his own cabin, where he removed his jacket, stood in front of the bathroom mirror, put two fingers down his throat, and regurgitated everything into one of the black plastic bags he kept for that very purpose beneath his sink. When he finished, he’d rinse his mouth, replace his jacket, and carry the bag back outside, where he would nod at the various happy passengers who sat on deck chairs wrapped in blankets, staring stupidly at the Northern Lights as they awaited the midnight buffet to be set out in the second dining room. When he was certain he was totally alone, he’d hurl his former dinner as far away from the ship as he could, into the icy water, return to his cabin, and enjoy a dreamless sleep.
The Captain’s hair is white these days, but above his left eye there is still a stain: a birthmark in the shape of an anchor. He combs his hair over it, and so successful is this strategy that even people who have known him for years are unaware of its existence.
Sometimes the residents of the Burrow will ask each other about the pond or the tree that hangs over it.
“How does the tree look to you these days? Does it look healthy? Do you ever wonder what kind of tree it is, exactly?”
Or, “How deep is the pond these days?” Or, “Have the birds begun to build their nests in the rushes of the pond?”
And the answer will invariably come back: “Actually, it’s been awhile since I’ve been outside at all.”
Jeffery thinks that out of everyone who lives at the Burrow, Raymond is the wild card. And as if to demonstrate this truth, on the very day following their conversation regarding jet planes, just as Jeffery is about to grasp the knob of the front door of the Burrow to go outside, who should appear but Raymond, his arms spread, grabbing on to the sleeve of Jeffery’s tan, cotton-polyester, lightweight jacket.
“Jeffery,” Raymond asks, “do you remember your dreams?”
Even from Raymond, this is a strange question. But then, what strikes Jeffery as even more bizarre is that Raymond must have been lurking by the front door for God knows how long, like the Ancient Mariner, waiting for him. And, what is even stranger, it is clear to Jeffery that Raymond must have gone to the door directly from his bed, because he is still wearing his red-and-white-striped pajamas, which could use a wash. Truly.
Also, there are three or four fresh wood shavings in his hair, as usual.
Raymond, being the Burrow’s longest resident, is the one who remembers Louis best, and when Louis left suddenly, in the middle of the night, without an explanation, it made Raymond nervous. How could someone be there one moment and then in the next disappear? When Raymond tries to picture Louis now, he can only recall a tall, coffee-colored man with gray, curly hair who was fond of sweaters, and always polite, and who never failed to clean up after himself when he used the kitchen. But what else? He used to like to talk to Louis, he knows this, but what did the two of them ever talk about? What were Louis’s features? What happened to him? The man seems to have been washed away somehow, and the thing that sticks most in Raymond’s mind is, of all things, the sound of his name, Louis, which, curiously, was the same sound made by Louis’s worn brown leather slippers as he shuffled down the hall on his way to the kitchen. At any rate, with Heather in her room most of the time and Viktor being with Madeline these days, that pretty much leaves only Jeffery for Raymond to talk to.
No wonder he misses Louis.
Viktor’s favorite word is rectum. There are others that come close—rector, correct, erect, even rectitude—but for all-round satisfaction and simple purity of sound, rectum wins, hands down. Rectum, that great two-stroke gong of a word, beginning with the crispness of the rec, and then, just as the listener is brought to attention by the rec, comes the hollow tum of doom at the end: rec-tum, the whole journey of life in two syllables, and the end of life, too, if you think about it. And just guess where that exit point is? Garbage in/garbage out. People write all the time they ª something, so why isn’t there an equivalent for the rectum? It is literally amazing that here we have one of the most important organs in the whole human body, and yet most people refuse to give it the recognition it deserves, have failed to embrace the power of this simple word. But Viktor has embraced it. That’s his secret.
Meanwhile, Jeffery still has his hand on the knob of the Burrow’s dark front door, getting ready to leave. “Why do you ask?” he asks Raymond.
“Because,” Raymond answers, “I’ve been having the same bad dream lately, and I can’t seem to stop it.”
“Maybe you should write it down so you can remember it,” Jeffery says, and gestures toward the exit.
“I already remember it,” Raymond replies. Somewhat disconcertingly, he begins to tug harder on the sleeve of Jeffery’s jacket. It’s one Jeffery was given several years ago by an old girlfriend, and for that reason it is his favorite article of clothing. It still smells of her patchouli and, at least in his mind, of her spit, which would sweetly leak from her mouth like a child’s when she fell asleep on long rides, her head on his shoulder as he drove carefully homeward so as not to wake her. Her name was Pam, he thinks, or Jan.
“Okay,” Jeffery surrenders. “Let’s go to my apartment. You can talk about it there. ”
And what kind of town is it where people are so backward that they refuse to learn the names of the trees that are in their own neighborhood?
Cypress or pine—these careless people answer if you should ask them—what difference does it make, as long as they are there?
But aren’t the names of things important?
The Burrow, for one.
“Twilight souls” is the name the Captain gives to the uncomplicated and unaware primitive races he came into contact with during his days on the high seas, caught, as they were, somewhere between animals and a higher being. But caught where exactly, the Captain refuses to specify.
And where are we now?
How did we come to be here?
Where we going?
And anyway, do we even need to know?
Jim Krusoe is the author of the novels Parsifal, Toward You, Erased, Girl Factory, and Iceland; two collections of stories; and five books of poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. He teaches at Santa Monica College and lives in Los Angeles.