The Underachiever

by Flavia M. Lobo

(dedicated to Padma Viswanathan)

To begin with, he looked very different from those who came before him, this creator. Not flashy, not even picturesque at all. Just huge. Huge and pale. Absolutely no dress sense or dress fun, always wearing those long rather dirty-looking nightdresses of indefinite color, off-white, off-gray, off-beige. And pompous, so pompous. Thinking him more endowed with hot air than with competence, I had voted against letting him try his hand at creation. But he apparently is very good at lobbying.

From the moment I first arrived on the new planet, I kept a close eye on him and his creatures for some time. The man and the woman particularly. And they were most interesting in their childlikeness coupled with an adult intellectual perspective. As if they had been made, or woken, already in their late teens, but carrying inside them a dream of childhood. I mean, they were capable of a child’s total absorption in what they saw and did, they were capable of becoming what they saw and did, so to speak, to suddenly stand back and be separate from it, stand back and look at themselves seeing and doing. It must have been very confusing for them.

As for me, I enjoyed it immensely. Simply by following them around and trying to understand their whats and hows, I started to notice little enchanting details in the nature around them. All of a sudden my eyes seemed to have acquired amplifying lenses: they were able to catch an insect cleaning itself with its delicate limbs like a cat with tongue and paws, or detect the minute vibrating fine hair-like strands on a leaf of grass as I knelt to follow the route of a beetle. But, getting back to him, after a while he and I talked a bit.

Well… I produced… prepared… prearranged… um… everything, he said, stroking his long white beard as he spoke in that ponderous, self-satisfied way of his. The sights, uh… the smells… the sounds. To total… um… perfection…

It was a splendid sight, to be sure. He had learned well to choose and blend shapes and colors and to use the language of nature on this planet, giving it all an artistic feel. Well, I never said he wasn’t trainable.

Then, he went on, I …took the two of… them, put them… placed them in… uh… that… grand, …gorgeous… garden… gave them… names. And… um… rested.

In fact, you seemed to be waiting for the inevitable, as I remember, I said.

Well… uh… at the time… I thought I was just… taking a …rest… relaxing… um… reposing after all the… deciding and… doing... I reckoned I had a… right… uh… to… rest, he said. Eventually… even I in my… elated state… fathomed they would… fancy each other…owing to the… um… ogling that occurred... early… on.

Lots of lustful life in the lad and lass, I retorted, parroting his alliterative style. Alliteration is a condition that afflicts most of us on Orizon. I try not to indulge in it too much, but occasionally succumb.

Actually, I sometimes think I’m a sort of a one-person minority on my own planet. A state of affairs distinctly apparent when it comes to the contest for creators. The ones I like best nobody else seems to like, and vice-versa. This time, as always, it was all very scrupulously done, naturally. For several days before the voting, we went on long walks along our purple cliffs and down our golden gorges with the candidates. We conversed frequently, and had interviews with each individually. Consequently, we learned much about them. And they about us, I presume. And when the council decided to send me over to assess his work, they were commissioning someone that they knew would be strictly objective and rather critical than condescending. While all the time aiming to be fair, of course.

He went on, looking aggrieved. Still, so… soon… such… short … spell… um…

Sometimes I just had no patience to wait for the end of the sentence. Desire has no need for time, no need for anything but the need it represents, I interrupted.

I had witnessed it all. At first, shy and ignorant, which may be but is not necessarily the same as innocent, Alvin and Emma looked and felt pleasure in each other’s beauty. However, soon looking was not enough; they wanted to touch, to feel, to claim that beauty. Just as they did with the pretty flowers they couldn’t leave alone and picked to hold, to own, if only for a short while.

Well, they… commenced… craving… uh… for… the… flesh, he said, outraged.

He noticed and interfered. Thundering. I heard him. No! No! No demeaning practices. No following the suggestions of the evil ones that would try to make them soil their pristine souls. And bodies. The evil ones whose menace loomed above them and who, with his permission, murmured wicked things in their ears, into their heads. Wicked things Emma and Alvin at first believed were born in their own hearts and some of which found a welcoming home in there. This was the test he had prepared for them, which they must pass. Or not.

And they were brother and sister too, or almost. Both came from the same life source, his life source. Although there was the other side of Alvin’s ancestry: when forming Alvin he, possibly unsure of himself, had borrowed some of the life source from another candidate’s creation project. Even so. He forbade it. The touching. The looking he couldn’t really prevent. It would be too unseemly to cover their eyes. Or, even worse, blind them. I dare say it had probably crossed his mind, but it was too obviously cruel. And he mustn’t be, mustn’t appear cruel. He didn’t want to be cruel.

I… um… sought… solely to… fulfill my… uh… function.

And that, it seemed, was, above all, to be obeyed.

Thus the prohibitions and the threats: If you don’t obey me you will be punished because I know what’s best, or words to that effect, which he repeated and repeated. The best, the for your own good, the you can’t see it now but you will someday.

Perhaps he had overdone the voluptuousness in their makeup, he very likely considered. Unconsciously compensating for its lack in him, I considered. He was not attractive. Immense, yes, powerful, yes, impressive and frightening, oh yes. But not actually attractive. And he had so wanted them to be attractive. And intense. He wanted to have before him those exquisite shapes and feelings that matched the luxuriant nature.

Now here he was with a problem on his hands. Which could be immediately solved if only they were good children and obeyed him. Could he be more reasonable? he clearly asked himself. If they were appreciative of all he had given them and obeyed him. If they were appreciative of the loveliness around, of their own loveliness, of the privilege of being forever in his presence. And so obeyed him completely. Forever. Not contented with being comfortably eternal, he required adoring blind obedience from his creatures.

At any rate, they couldn’t or wouldn’t. Obey, I mean. They didn’t mind the worshipping and all, and they enjoyed the delights of the garden. The scented air, the colors, the melodies in the trees, in the breeze, in the lukewarm brooks and in the crystalline waterfalls.

Also they knew that beyond the garden limits, at least to one side of it, lived the evil ones. In darkness. Sometimes at night they could hear the gnashing of teeth and the howling. And occasionally the breeze would bring an acrid smell that overwhelmed the sweet perfumes of the garden. They imagined horns, claws, fangs. And they trembled.

But still they didn’t. Obey. Instead, they found a bush that escaped his gaze for a few minutes. And there they touched and had each other, and I could tell that it was so much better than picking flowers, and that they enjoyed it fully. As it happened, he caught them at it. Of course he would, they should have known he would. His eyes were everywhere.

My guess is they didn’t care if he did. Couldn’t care. There was too much joy in them now, in their bodies. Their bodies that were entranced by each other’s wonders and their own. Besides, he kept telling them how good he was to them, how he wanted them to be happy, saying they were happy so often they believed him. But how could they be happy now without that? Now that they felt most keenly the demanding urge? Surely he would understand. Nonetheless, in horror he sent them away.

Go, you reckless wretches. You despicable, detestable, dirty wretches, he raved. You have forsaken my favor, my philanthropic fondness, and instead you have invited my wrath.

In his vexation his tongue was quick and fluent. They had indeed forfeited their privileges: the cushioned life, the future inheritance, the safety. They had shattered his ideal of an orderly immortal happiness shared by dutiful children and their wise parent. They had severed their intimate relationship with him, and were driven into the wilderness. Which actually was just outside the garden.

Emma cried as she left. She looked beyond the limits of the cherished, precious, unbelievably lost garden, as they approached the gate, and it was arid and tough out there. She regretted the green, the bird songs, the soft hair of the beasts she had petted and held in her arms. And cried some more. She turned to Alvin, but Alvin just looked perplexed. And hurt. What had he done that was so terrible? So unfair this. Not his fault. The evil whisper in his ear, and Emma’s sensuous curves, they were to blame.

Proclaiming the couple’s banishment, he distanced himself. To soon miss them painfully. Life was unbearably tedious, time limped heavily without those lovely lively creatures with whom to interact occasionally, knowing they belonged to him. Those creatures weak enough to be influenced, yet too flighty to be thoroughly controlled. Animals were also easy on the eye, but much too slippery to grasp, most of them. And, in any case, they weren’t morphologically made for adoration. Not even the dog he introduced to his menagerie could take the place of his lost children.

Hence, he eventually resolved to stalk them, making sure they were aware of his judgmental presence. They couldn’t actually see him, but feeling him around they spoke to him, asked for his forgiveness, for his help. He, hoping they would learn through suffering, much suffering, enough to make them change their ways entirely and become the wonderful, chaste, maybe impure but chaste, sweet and mild children they were in his fantasy, did not answer. There was still, no matter how desperately they tried to hide it, when they were aware of it, a hint of rebelliousness in Alvin’s and Emma’s outer and inner voices when they appealed to him. As if saying he thought he was just but wasn’t, thought he was loving but wasn’t. Unless he answered, of course.

But, if truth be told, I could see that he was wearying of their now gaunt faces, dull hair, leathery skin. Emma’s soft hands and fine long fingers now swollen and callused, her smooth brow wrinkled with anxiety, Alvin’s once muscled torso sadly sagging. And there was always panic under the surface of their eyes. They looked less like his children every day.

One might expect him to put his hopes on his children’s children now. At this point there were two twin newborn boys. He would have to take them with him to the garden, I suppose, if he resolved to offer them salvation as he saw it. But he usually averted his disgusted eyes from the babies, seeming to find them too scraggly. And already tainted perhaps.

In short, there was no answer. From him, that is. As for the disturbed fiends that populate the air, and try to burrow their way into everything, they talk to Alvin and Emma almost inaudibly practically all the time. The two humans occasionally speak to them too when they can’t hear them properly and want to know what the muttering is about. Every time the evil ones, who seem to be all ears, hear Alvin and Emma and answer them. But Emma and Alvin rarely dare to follow the little demons’ advice, and then only in minor matters, and they have never allowed the wicked ones to penetrate their skin and live permanently inside them as requested. So far, from what I have perceived, there is at best a casual relationship between the parties. Whether the same will be true with Emma and Alvin’s children remains to be seen.

There is also the murmur of other beings, even inanimate ones, for around Alvin and Emma nothing is ever truly quiet, inviting the couple to stop wanting to hear and just listen instead. But that would mean to be still, filled with silence, which they cannot do. They must move all the time, make noise all the time, not listen, not see, not give a look at their alarmed, breaking hearts. While he, he plays deaf and dumb, I think. Although I have had moments when I am sure he is truly a bit deaf. Nevertheless, they can’t dismiss him entirely without risking even harsher punishment. They must go through the motions of repenting and pleading, and calling themselves names, not to offend him. Which they dutifully do. As a matter of fact, however, the whole thing frustrates him as well. Terribly.

Often I… fear I have… uh… failed, he confided just a while ago.

He wanted so much to imbue his children’s souls with candor, their spirits with courage, their bodies with health and vigor and light, he told me. Whereas, as I see it, he has impregnated them with ubiquitous fear and the fruits of fear. And, as we all know, the shackling nature of severe hardship or agonizing sorrow is nothing compared to the contagious crippling nature of fear, which once inside someone leaves little or no room for anything else.

What I in fact… um… intend, he continued, is to eradicate this… experiment… and… um… attempt… another… I’d… uh… make mankind… um… more… malleable…

I pretended not to hear the question mark in his intonation, but that didn’t help as he resorted to asking directly: Would I be allowed?

What a question to ask. And to ask of me. Surely he realized my position. What was he thinking? Honestly!

How in heaven’s name should I know? I said very, very quietly. And without further ado, waved goodbye and stepped onto the craft.

 


Flavia M. Lobo is a writer and translator from Rio de Janeiro. Her translations for the Brazilian public include Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer. She also helped revise the translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, besides editing and translating its Notes. Recent work includes two children's stories; The Key, a fairy tale published by Feral Press, with illustrations by John Digby; and Fabulosae Aves (Fabulous Birds), also published by Feral Press. Her translation of André Sant'Ánna’s story, "Bitches Brew," appeared in Issue 18 of The Cafe Irreal, and two of her fictional works, "Masks" (Issue 19) and two selections from Fabulosae Aves (Issue 26), have also appeared in our pages.