This is the insufflation.
Imagine a white place. She’s in the white place, or she is the white place. She’s wearing a gown, in a white bed. Her name is Ann, she knows that. She’s asked to stand. She’s made to stand.
She is led.
Down a white corridor.
The nurse walking beside her has the head of a marmot. Or an otter, Ann’s not sure. She’s never been good with animals. This has been a problem in the past, she knows that. They pass other corridors, leading off from theirs at less-than-true angles, the off-kilter off-putting, all the corridors unassessed possibilities at the end of which Ann glimpses windows, sunshine. She longs for the sunshine there, the simplicity of it, to take the place of this thing she’s headed toward. Her head. She makes pleasantries to the nurse that fall flat because she doesn’t know if marmots like sunshine. Or otters.
“Once,” Ann begins, she tries, “I stroked an otter’s belly.”
At the hall’s end her husband Dev is waiting. Sweet Dev, of the incomplete gestures, the fluttery patience, who loves her. Dev has a tiger’s head, and this is something new, Ann knows that, and knowing becomes a chain of regressive thoughts that begins with: Then how do I know it’s him? Past the glass door she can see the treatment veranda, all redwood banisters, mountain peaks fingering a baby-blue sky. Clouds stir inside her.
Dev kisses her cheek. His fangs tickle. “I hope you got some sleep.”
“Not good.” When Dev frowns his whiskers tremble. “You should be rested up for this, Ann.”
“Bite me,” she says. It seems the only response to his new head. It makes her giggle, takes away the fear that’s carving a valley in her.
When he tries to laugh with her it brings the fear back. His orange face is ferocious with exertion. “You know, this is up to you.”
Ann strokes his muzzle. “Once,” she tries, “I saw a tiger in a local zoo. He was large as a world and the cage was tiny. I watched him pace, back and forth, never more than the length of his body. It looked like he was turning around and around in his own skin.”
“Please try this time.”
She takes Dev’s hand and together they step out onto the veranda.
High up, Ann knows that, the light almost too cold to breathe, yet the mountains are furred with trees to their tips as if they’ve never heard of timberlines, their outline mirrored in the patients—all women—seated in the scattered chairs. Some are receiving their insufflation, or perhaps their palliation, the dark shape of the treatment in plain sight in their lap (close your eyes, look away), while nurses move among them bearing treatments with the tepid disinterest their heads imply, slugs or whales. Each of the female patients has a sitter beside her. Only spouses allowed during treatment, Ann recalls. Husbands mostly, a few wives. It is only the patients who do not have animal heads, each woman just herself, nameless, and this makes a fleeting sense to Ann, a beauty that puzzles and is gone, like a receding dream, the dream logic of an impossible colour that upon waking is white.
“Oh, you’re ready?” A giraffe nurse turns from the holding tank, her surprise another puzzle because Ann was made to stand and come here, she knows that. It’s the question that floats in the air as Dev leads her toward a chair, the question of who chooses. Up to you, Ann. She’s afraid of it. There are wide spaces between the slats of the veranda floor, and as Ann steps across them she can see between the boards down to the scrub-laced incline where the ground falls away, the veranda really a jutting balcony over the stony mountainside, ochre and cabbage hues alternating down there, dizzying.
“Once,” Ann tries, “my parents rented a cabin in the mountains. The balcony had wide spaces between the slats like this and I was afraid to step out on it, afraid I’d fall through. I was still at that age when you have no sense of your own thickness. Everyone laughed. My father swept me up in his arms and carried me to a chair, scolding me for being silly.”
Dev settles her into the chair and a nurse places the treatment in her lap.
Everyone has an animal. This is Ann’s animal, hers alone, she has to love it. The tea-brown sheen of amorphous skin is aquatic somehow, flowing, mouldable as the memory of fluid. A brown water balloon. It lies on what must be its back (Ann thinks but doesn’t know), its must-be head near her knees, cradled by her thighs, still settling under its weight. As she watches, nubs that are rudimentary hands accrue at random points in the seething tummy and reach toward her only to recede again. Her animal shudders in a rhythm, almost indiscernible, tympanum of skin shaken by a pulse from deep within. Ann loves and loves. She can’t stop. Large eyes swim around from the back of her animal and see the love and leave again. Her love is a solid object in her hands, material spewed from her heart and cast on a potter’s wheel, a presence she can turn and form in the air in front of her. She wants to explain this feeling, how it’s too much.
“Why does it have to be like this?” she murmurs, and Dev crouches at her side. She knows what he’s going to say. Up to you. Down and right and left to you, Ann.
What he says is, “You’ve been sick.”
From one of the waving nubs on Ann’s animal an umbilical takes shape. String-thin, coiled. She doesn’t remember this. When the umbilical unfurls toward Ann she’s reminded of a film of a duck penis she saw once, the seeking motion ludicrous, like a zucchini vine with a mind. She wants to giggle and can’t. She wants to say Once. She can sense Dev in her peripheral vision, like one of the mountains, his fangs close to her temple now as if to study the effect of his breath on the fine hairs of her cheek. He smells of cat. Answering a question no one asked, he says, “I want you to know I’m here.”
“How could I not?”
Kissing a path between the buttons of her gown, the umbilical enters her navel.
There is no pain of penetration, only that pulse passed on to points behind her skin, deep injury where no nerves exist to say no. She encompasses it, she’s a mouth on the cock of it, her body the mouth, a torus enfolding this thing too large to know. One by one she is touched in the organs, womb liver kidneys, each shuddering hard, matching its pulse to meet the love, lifting the umbilical trembling past heart and larynx to her brain. She knows the moment it arrives there, while in her lap her animal shrinks, not with the crinkle of a deflating bag as she expected but evenly, a time-lapse film, smaller each time she blinks, and as it lessens so is Ann grown. Filled, made full, filled full with philosophy, fillosophy, cells flattened against the inside of her skin to make room. She is being made to feel, and it feels like the time she fell, once, down a hill, a walkway in the park on the way home, high up along the edge of a slope. Drunk with friends, she danced and came down on the wrong foot and the starry drunk sky revolved around her like this, rolled her like a barrel. She saw the answer to everything. They slid down to rescue her, cheering her tumble, good friends, she can see their faces, flushed and human, unfurred, unfeathered. Ann loved them then, she knows that, and she grasps at their names, but there’s no room for them, her animal has filled up every space. “Once,” she gasps, she tries, but there’s no story to make herself with, no then. This is now.
And then her animal’s gone, all inside her, the last dark tip of the umbilical slapping against her abdomen before it vanishes into her navel. Dev waits by her cheek, so close she imagines he’s cross-eyed, at prayer she thinks, willing it to take. Watching for her head to change, though it’s far too soon. All of it so important to him.
Across the way a woman receiving her insufflation screams and all the clouds fall out of the sky. Ann is back from where she was, skin still stretched taut from within, but awake now.
Tilting her head she can see the screamer, a dark-haired woman bucking against the restraint of a nurse with a bull’s head, while an emu hurries to secure the woman’s precious animal before it can slip from her lap. The woman’s wife is beside her, a platypus face, old and a bit of everything, sobbing now, holding her lover, squeaking platitudes. Ann has to look away, not from the revolt of the dark-haired woman (the possibility of which squirms inside her) but from the platypus tears. In the opposite corner another patient cradles her animal in her forearms, all alone, no spouse or nurse in sight, her mouth down on the amorphous flesh, and as Ann watches, she eats it, ravenous, as if the regular route of insufflation is not fast enough for this woman, teething the meat like cotton candy, improbable red juice on her chin, until the animal’s eaten up. Ann finds her gaze swivelling back and forth between these two, the fighter and the devourer.
She struggles to her feet, top-heavy though she hasn’t changed.
Dev makes incomplete gestures. “You’ve got to rest now, sleep,” he purrs. “Let it take.”
“I want to walk in the mountains, Dev.”
She can’t look at his disappointed face, the downward-turning stripes. She’s supposed to be trying. There’s a stairway at the end of the veranda, leading to paths like umbilicals through the greenery of the institute, dark mouths of trees into the foothills, and she lurches toward them.
I had to hunt down the doctor. Nurses took one glance and scurried out of my way. More proof that the tiger’s head I’d been given this time was as wrong as I felt it to be. A mimetic creature out of its environment, not one colour or the other, too bright for the white walls. Wrong for Ann, wrong for this place. (Though my animal could never err, surely.) I’d brought Ann here for help, because she’d lost herself, because I could not follow the trail of her loss, and then this: needing to apologize right and left for my roar. All roar (of course), no bite.
“Limitrophy is an inexact science.” The doctor had a habit of breaking his stride down the hall and coming to a standstill when he made a point, the lecturer at his lectern. Even unto lifting a finger. I was constantly ahead by a length, having to stop and turn back to listen, at that same standstill whereas I wanted to move, do, anything. How many, I’d asked, upon scenting him out in his cubbyhole, and it had come out a growl. How many more treatments will she need? Even he had looked alarmed. “We have sometimes to have many tries, Mr. Devereaux. Many course of insufflation, of palliation. We must trust the animal.”
Truss the animal. The doctor’s curved beak distorted his words. Lisps and clacks. The doctor had the head of a great potoo, perhaps the most comical bird a person can be. Compensation, I could only suppose, for his lack of humour. With his yellow eyes widened in lecture mode as they were now, he was the image of the cockeyed maniac. It was all I could do to remind myself that appearance seldom correlates with intellect. (I wanted Ann there. She would have laughed at him, that crackling, jewel-cracking sound.)
“The limiting of possibilities…” He sighed and took up his stride again. “It is difficult thing. We must fold, concentrate. Thicken.”
Sicken. “Surely there should be a sign now, some indication that it’s taking.”
“You will see. A thing that is made must be first carved out of the mass of the all, which being everything is nothing. It must be limited. Here we can carve, here against this backdrop of stone. In order to form, one must whittle away.”
“One must limit that which one will present as truth.”
“You were seeing the women on the veranda, Mr. Devereaux.” I hadn’t, intent only on Ann, and I told him so. “That…nakedness. The nakedness of the head, it is a wrong thing. It must be clothed.”
“Walk with me.” We had come to the front door, beyond which lay paths through the greenery of the institute, openings in the trees like mouths into the foothills. I shrugged. He pulled a gimme cap from his waistcoat pocket and donned it, hiding the crown of scraggly feathers. Once under the trees his stop-and-go tactic ceased, smoothed by air and the shadows of mountains to a continuous brisk pace. The cold breeze unstuck my fur.
“We have cured many here, Mr. Devereaux.” I found it prudent not to say I doubted it. “No place is being more conducive.” The doctor’s head made more sense in the forest, the mangy down surrounding his eyes a seeming outgrowth of the grey bark around us. Mimesis that worked. “Here we have the conjunction of air, endless sky, wood. It is special atmosphere that helps, you will see. The mountains, the isolation from the world other than spouse. It is letting the animal work.” His voice lowered as he quoted: “The stone is worldless; man is poor in world; the animal…is world-forming.”
Doubt that only grew every time I spoke to him. Great, clawing doubt by now. Nothing had helped. I’d lost track of our time here, the number of Ann’s treatments. The doctor’s clacks at some point had become only that—clacks. There seemed no difference between what the institute did and what a family did at home for a person whose head began to fade, just that there were loved ones instead of nurses to catch the expelled animal and place it in its tank, tend the vulnerable changer until it was time again to insufflate. How often I had sat by Ann for a day until her animal was ready, carried it wet to her and presto a new head. She had always been a frequent changer, part of why I loved her. It had taken many lost expeditions to the centre of her, the doorbell unrung for days, rainy afternoons during which she did nothing but look out the window, before I realized how her face had become naked at some point. Unclothed. How it stayed that way even after an insufflation. Wrong, he’d said. I wasn’t sure what wrong meant anymore.
It was myself I had begun to doubt.
“I only want her to get better, Doctor,” I told him. I could hear Ann, lover of word-play, saying, At what? “I just want her to leave here whole.”
At the bottom of the stairs Ann steps away and peers into the damp recess where the hill falls away from the veranda. The smell is indolic, urine on fur. There’s a familiarity to the angle of veranda and plunging hill that she can feel in her spine, a snapping-to of jaws. Further and she can see the institute as a whole, a maundering wood structure the bark-red of menstrual blood, monumentally alone, on a low plateau between mountains. Rounding the front she sees no drive, no vehicles, only another walkway leading from the ornamental front door. Monumentalism in the middle of nowhere. Last station of the sick. Like something from a German novel. Everyone talks about their TB and looks at the Alps. Everyone dies.
“Like something from a German novel, isn’t it?” The dark-haired fighter startles Ann, coming up from behind. The woman seems to have recovered from her revolt. She’s smaller than Ann thought. Wiry, in the sense of barbed wire. Ann can’t look away from the human face, its nakedness, the way it struggles with too much of everything, and wonders if hers is the same.
She doesn’t know what to say, having seen this woman at her worst. “Once,” she tries. She can’t think of anything. “Once, I.”
“Oh don’t start with that.” The woman stalks off toward the foothills. “We’re made up of the things that have happened to us. I can tell myself. I’m a story.” She turns back. “It’s a crock. What’s your name?”
“I’m Anne.” She spells it. She’s springy, a dropped needle, blooding to the touch. “Walk with me, Ann, and I’ll tell you a secret.”
There are no secrets, Ann knows, when we’re like this. Under the trees the barbed woman relaxes. The path is narrow. Arbutus, soggy with understory dew, strafes their hips. The breeze rustles secrets.
“You’ve had more than one too, haven’t you?” Anne asks.
Ann hates to admit she’s lost count of her treatments. “It’s all a little blank.”
“And no change yet.” Anne studies her face, but it’s a comforting gaze, bereft of expectations. Not like when Dev does it. The rudeness of it makes Ann smile. “I’ve had a lot too. See anything?” Anne lifts wiry hair, slaps her own cheek. “Nothing recognizable.”
Behind them on the path a twig breaks. A larger rustle, hidden by the curve of trees.
“Why do you fight the treatment?” Ann asks her.
Anne is silent for a moment. “It…bothers me that they’ll think they know what I am. That doesn’t mean I don’t love my animal. It’s mine. We have to love it, right? I love it, I truly do.” She screams to the forest, “I love it!”
From behind, a startled snort.
Ann laughs. “Is that your secret?”
“Listen. This is true.” Anne waxes conspiratorial. “There’s a place here in the mountains. A hidden village, where people who have only human heads can go and live together in a community. They live off the land, naked as they are.” She throws her arms out, gesturing at every peak. “Somewhere up high.”
The woman Anne is insane, Ann knows that. Or more like a child, with a child’s insanity, the in-and-out-of-sanity, believing in myths. A barbed-wire child, this (beautiful) story only one of the barbs lodged in her skin.
“They leave their animals behind. No one there has an animal to make them.” Anne shines like metal. “Everyone there is everything or nothing. Whatever they want to be, or really are.”
“But isn’t that a contradiction?”
“To be whole one must find the essential, Mr. Devereaux. Chip away the superfluous, the chaos. Define.” The doctor paused, one finger up, lecturing to the larch. In the stillness my tiger ears heard voices that seemed close by, as if on the path with us though we walked alone. “This is the task of limitrophy, of our animals.” Echoes, perhaps, from further away, the mountains full of natural amphitheatres. “If I am anybody at all then I am being nothing. Just as white is every colour, a blank. Most of us cannot imagine that…diffusion. We are born limited, this is luckily, to what we are, changing as needed only few times in life, in the home’s comfort, with loved ones there for us.”
Force. We had tried new courses, forcing the insufflation, and I’d watched for a sign in Ann of anything she’d been, and she had been so many things: seal, dingo, dormouse, the cheetah and the antelope. Nothing took. Where she had been something, she was nothing. She began to balk at the insufflation, asking me to leave her animal in its tank. I thought I was dying.
“And for us it always is taking, nicht wahr, Mr. Devereaux? We are so much blessed.”
The voices hooted again, as if from my own pockets, laughter walking beside me. Somewhere someone giggled.
The rustles and snorts grow louder behind them. On a straight stretch Ann looks back and sees their pursuer, a lone figure, the devourer from the veranda, she’s sure, though the head has begun to change. The woman who ate her animal is keeping an exact distance behind them, shy. Blond and bulky before, she has become vaguely equine, delicate head and muzzle a stunning cream colour, dun or champagne, with pink patches around the eyes, as if the fur there has been cried away through generations of breeding. Her ears are pointed at them.
“That’s An,” Anne says, seeing Ann glance back. She spells it. “Some act she pulled back there, huh? One sure way to make it take.” Teeth tearing meat like cotton candy. Ann tastes bile. “She’ll always be the one animal forever now though. No palliation after a stunt like that.”
One animal forever. Ann remembers changes she’s attended. Dev’s three. A beloved aunt once, old for it at the time. The animal shrinking, then the blur as the human face alters, cells quickening, melding to calluses. The changer renewed, a new animal or—much more often—the old one. There’s a glory to that too, Ann knows that. A steadfastness. A comfort. You can know, My mother’s a root vole and always will be.
“Would it be so terrible?” she murmurs. Anne stares at her. “One animal forever?”
“Why only women?” Shouldn’t have asked it, but my head was making me rash. My orange impatience.
“I see you are a political animal.” The doctor grimaced, making his eyeballs pop all the more. “It is myth, you know. We have had the both here. Man, woman. And some that are the both. Women—” He sighed a bird sigh. “I think are wanting to be everything, more often.”
“Would it be so terrible to let them?”
I’d meant it to shock, I believe, a valve for my ever-swelling doubt, but he stared so hard I feared his eyes would fly out at me like shot marbles. The rustling laughter of the leaves threatened to burst my head.
“Our patients—we must pity them, Mr. Devereaux. What would you have? That you must, out of all infinity, choose what you are, or that your animal has chosen for you? Choice—choice is an horreur, sir. We evolved with an animal for a reason. Limitrophy is our birthright. Those who say otherwise, who talk of the tyranny of the animal, they are having not all the cups in their cupboard. To become limited…” His finger rose higher. His cheek feathers ruffled with righteousness. “That is true freedom.”
“I’m going to run away,” Anne tells Ann. “That’s the secret. One of these nights I’ll sneak out and run away to that village. I’ll look until I find it. I’ll look until I freeze to death. They’ll take me in.”
In the beautiful story Ann sees Anne, white-crystalled with frost, stumbling into a circle of huts, arms welcoming her.
“Why don’t you run away now?”
The challenge opens a still space, mazes leading away among the spruce. Anne takes a long time to answer.
“She loves me,” she finally says. Ann thinks of the platypus wife sobbing her monotreme heart out. “Yours loves you too.”
Ann knows that. “I know that.”
Whatever I was doing wrong, whatever I had become in the claws of the institute, pulsed now along with the voices, a beat that said not working not working. I pressed my hands to my eyes until they hurt. “That’s what Ann wants, you know. Freedom.” From everything. From me. I didn’t want to think it.
“That is impossible thing, in this world we have.”
“Then there’s nothing I can do.”
“Be there for her, always. Let her know that. We will try again. We will succeed.”
A tiger in the foliage, patient. It seemed impossible, my nature now to pounce, frighten, demand.
Looking up, I saw that by walking away we had returned to the institute, though the path never seemed to wind. Nothing moved at the front door. We stood together looking up at it and I was alone, naked, unclothed, turning around and around in my own skin.
“I remember being so many animals,” Ann confesses to Anne. “Sometimes I think I’ve run out, that’s all.”
Looking up she sees they’ve arrived back at the institute, though the path never seemed to wind. An has caught up with them, a mustard horse smell to Ann’s left. Nothing moves at the front of the institute. Ann can feel her animal scraping at her from the inside, getting nowhere. She touches her head. No change.
The thought that she’ll have to go through palliation now and a new insufflation, systole and diastole, tides tearing her apart again and again, doubles her over with a sob. Anne and An grasp her arms to steady her.
Imagine a white place. She’s in the white place, or she is the white place. She’s wearing a white gown, with buttons down the front. She’s made to stand and walk, down a white corridor. She longs for the sunshine she sees at the ends of corridors, to replace this thing she’s headed toward. At the glass door her husband takes her hand. There’s no patience in his ferocious face, she’s used it up.
This is the palliation. Nothing has taken. She’ll have to try again, many more times. She’s Ann, she knows that, and it’s killing her.
She’s helped to a chair. Buttons are opened. Ann’s animal is a dot in her navel at first, a blackhead, then the umbilical emerges, thickening. As if to confirm it’s in the right place, one eye floats around from the back and blinks at her. It rushes out then, lengthens, applying hard stinging flaps against her abdomen, swelling at the tip to a miniature of her animal and Ann is crinkling inside, deflating, inner surfaces siphoned off at different paces. The pain is a world, world-forming. She’s pressed her teeth together so hard she’s afraid they’ll shatter. Palliation doesn’t hurt the healthy like this, Ann knows that, they are all fundamentally different, unflappable. Dev’s closed his eyes, resting his forehead against her temple. Somewhere someone screams, but it’s only Anne across the way, still fighting her insufflation. Pushing and pulling, Ann sees now, running and staying, clinging to her helpless sobbing platypus who’s not helpless at all because she hurts with her. Every head is turned to the fighter, nurse, spouse, penguin, coati. Plodding An has come out to watch. Made animals, every one of them, captivated by one who won’t be made.
The bulk of Ann’s animal is in her lap now. Looking at it she thinks: the theorists are wrong, not some ur-eel humans evolved in symbiosis with, it’s a flesh scrap of your heart, filled with your blood and sewn up, and so fungible enough to slip between the cracks.
She spreads her knees. Her animal tumbles past the edge of her gown, borne by its weight, down through the veranda slats, pouring between the fingers of wood that make no attempt to catch it. Three eyes slide forward at the last moment to look at her, wide and unbelieving. The umbilical goes last, popping from her navel, flapping after.
The liquid thud as it hits the stones below shakes Dev from his prayer.
Seconds tick as he takes it in. Horror blossoms in the tapetum of his eyes. In that deflected light Ann knows what she’s always known, how terrible it is to have a husband who doesn’t want what you are. Wants limits, because limits are easy to love.
“Ann—” he mewls. “Why?”
“Because no one should be made.”
The black stripes in his face are like cracks too wide to ever be repaired. He’s coming apart. He runs to the stairs and she follows, through bleating nurses. In the underbelly of the veranda he slips on fetid mud, rummages among the bleached stalks of sedge until he finds it, lifts the lifeless bag with all his fingers. Red juice mottles his shirt front. He half-collapses. His grief is a coughed roar, over and over. When he catches sight of her his eyes burn.
“It was just an animal,” she says.
Yellow burning eyes. It’s all she can see of him through the stalks.
There are paths through the greenery, trees like mouths into the foothills and then the mountains, insanity and beautiful stories, and she turns and runs for them.
Story copyright © 2016 by Rhonda Eikamp
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Shauna O’Meara
Rhonda Eikamp is originally from Texas and lives in Germany. Stories of hers have appeared in Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Observances, The Dark, and Mirror Dance, among others. She hasn’t yet discovered what her animal is, but is very afraid it’s a sloth.
Shauna O’Meara is an Australian artist, writer, and veterinarian. She has contributed cover and interior artwork to In Fabula-divino, Cthulhu: Deep Down Under, Gold Coast Anthology: Undertow, Andromeda Spaceways 61, Winds of Change, Next, and The Never Never Land. Her covers for Next and The Never Never Land were nominated for Ditmar Awards. The interior for The Never Never Land won the E.G. Harvey Award in 2015.