CONJUNCTIONS:26 Spring 1996
The Putti
Shelley Jackson


I AM HERE to sketch the contours of the double danger that concerns us: the putti as parasite, the putti as drug. I am here with bias, performers and visuals.
      We will start by considering the putti as drug, known as auntie, little sister, pigeon (after the look-alike that dupes hasty buyers), slug, devil, root, red doll. I am a user. No doubt I will speak strangely at times. It is my conviction that if I do so, it will not hobble my presentation, but add to it that stink of the real which makes of fact, understanding.
      Please follow me as we leave the committee room to observe the sale of putti firsthand. If you are wearing the wrong shoes, elegant slip-on medium-heel galoshes are available for a small rental fee from the kiosk outside, so move right along toward this authentic street scene, please do not step over the ropes to examine the illusion more carefully as you will damage the exhibit, you will all be thoroughly searched as we leave. Observe a street polka-dotted with chewing-gum rounds. Here putti may be tracked down quickly enough by anyone with a wad to wave around, and I have been amply supplied thanks to the Commission's caboodle, the financial acumen of this commission makes me stiff in my physical pants. But even with bags of the wallet-weed you can't pick up prime stuff on the street.
      Street putti's not the scab red of the best strain, but a waxy cardinal red, and not much bigger than a grasshopper. Show your money and watch the plastic-baggied root unroll from squares of flannel drawn from the pockets of our well-treated stand-ins whose chapped ankles stretch bare out of secondhand dress shoes, boys with long hairless thighs and slender cocks and brown-mauve heads shiny like oiled hardwood furniture. They have the sex appeal of a small mallet rapapped on the table by a presiding officer in calling for attention or silence.
      A word of advice: examine the goods before you buy. You wouldn't believe the things they pass off as the good stuff. Pigeon meat, snipped and dyed. Garden slugs salt-stiffened and lipsticked red. I hold a specimen in my hand if the camera would move in and you can see on the screen we have disguised as a bus shelter a fine specimen as rubicund as hemorrhoidal dogbottom. The putti is tacky and I handle it gingerly so none of the skin comes away on my hand. Putti are plump in the center, tapering toward the ends. They are firm but flexible; note the torque I can induce with a simple turn of the wrist. Note the splinter between their clothespin "thighs." It looks like a schlong scaled small, but it's just a wen, a nodule, a bump on a root. Under the thick, spicy skin lies the meat of a turnip, a radish, a beet. No tiny bones, no tiny lungs or heart. Just the deep red flesh, ringed with subtle bands of pink.
      The rubbery "arms" are forced to the sides and bound there for drying; at the tip of my nail observe the crease left by the twine. Ideally tied with hemp to sweet cedar racks and dried in high desert, more often they are strung up on the back of a chair in front of a fan in a closet.
      As the putti dry their sketchy features sharpen. Their flesh goes malleable, dark and sticky where pressed. It holds a thumbprint, turns gummy like hash. The putti contract; go from smooth and shiny to deeply cleft, awry. They range from delicate rose, said to be milder, to the deep red approaching black beloved of connoisseurs. Connoisseurs like the late Bitch Henry, whose dealer picked out the most florid specimens for him, their heads black and heavy like rotting roses.
      If you trim the joint close enough you can hold a match to the feet and suck the tiny head, pronged and spicy as a juniper berry, and of a size. Suck it and you'll numb your tongue, while the peppersmoke, sticky black and resinous, coats lungs faster than cigars.
      Dried like this specimen, putti cost more than cocaine; even fresh they come at a price, for harvest is lucky, bloody, unsafe. From a popular underground handbook: "Drug your victim and hold him down. Slide in your blade until it meets resistance. Keeping the slit propped open, extract Junior with tongs. Then run," advise the authors, who recently appeared on a talk show in well-ironed pin-striped masks, and were spotted sharing auntie with the host after the hour.
      The desperate poor sometimes pulp their own thighs or abdomen, because they saw or hoped they saw a faint blush under the skin, or felt a lump. I once saw a man whose face evaded all features limping up the street with blood in his shoes, daintily tweaking open his overcoat to proffer a putti still smutty with clotting blood and lymph, still half wed to what it was plucked from. A doll daubed red in a drenched paper towel. These are the lucky ones, who make it out of the house with a sales pitch and a stagger. Bitch Henry bled to death, a kitchen knife in his hand.
      Worth less fresh, putti's still a draw, and I've seen businessmen giddy at the cut-rate commodity empty their lunch bags on the sidewalk and slip a dribbling packet of red abortion in their suit pockets. The gutted host hunches off to the health project, where there's a room always full these days, men and women laid out under the needle like samplers awaiting cross-stitch Americana, houses and token cornstalks, verses cautionary or wry. Or he risks it unsewn with something else to sell, and limps to an hourly rates motel where someone pays top dollar to point his groin at the gash in the thigh, to press his thumbs on either side of the cut, part the rubbery banks lined with razed cells and "put the putti back."
      Users brag they can taste the putti's past, can tell aesthete from prankster from the household handyman who keeps the pages of the newspaper lying smooth or prevents the cleanser from clumping. Never mind that no one knows whether the putti do these things or do anything at all but grow and wait. The tabloids are full of doctored photographs of putti on toadstools and bibles, guarding pilfered toothbrushes, bobby pins and wedding rings, like bower-birds. The science news is equally fantastic: scientists attempt to detect infinitesimal free-roving putti in their cloud chambers. Slice specimens like hot dogs. Dunk them in acid, cook them, crush them in presses, stretch them on racks, plant them, launch them into orbit, psychoanalyze them, irradiate, explode and oh most certainly smoke them.
      Does the smoke transmit their seed? But users aren't all carriers, nor the reverse. Where did the first putti come from? A graft, say some, information formed into flesh, a top-secret experiment run amok. A floppy disk gone sticky, sloppy. Self-propagating meat-friendly infochop. They have something to tell us, say some. But when will they speak?
      Dr. Crane, amateur biologist, claims success with shock treatment. Stuck with electrodes and pumped full of juice, his specimens totter around jerking and sizzling, and choke out a few glottally inflected phrases in a wheeze that comes from no lungs, but from some pocket of air expiring under pressure, battered into consonants by whatever masses can come together like lip and tongue. He surrounds them with microphones and recording devices, he compiles glossaries of whoosh and hiss and analyzes them with a code-breaking program, claims to have deciphered one such utterance as "Bring it to Jerome," and makes much of this Jerome, whose name resounds with religious associations. The putti don't stick around to make sure their message is understood. A few seconds at that voltage and they're jerky, flamingo filet.
      It is my elegy to Bitch Henry that reflective particles have been released from nozzles camouflaged with faux pigeonshit in the facades of the surrounding buildings and are forming a cloud that will take some hours to disperse (those experiencing respiratory difficulty will be issued oxygen masks in flattering pastels) and in moments you will see and here it is now from horizon to horizon a realistically tinted electron microscope image of a fraction of a centimeter of Henry's skin, taken from his left hip by Dr. Crane some months before his death. Stroll under this flesh canopy lit by sourceless electron light while noshing on the scale models of human skin flakes and shed hairs provided gratis by the talented bakers of our catering service, enjoying the illusion that you are the size of dust mites or indeed of putti.
      Look closely at the horny thickening around the base of the nearest magnified hair. Most scientists agree the putti have no means of locomotion and no sensible life as we know it, but observe: a putti lounges against the hair, his legs lolling wide, jaw askew. Another hangs on with one hand, swings wide, wrinkling his nose at the camera. Tinted too energetic a fuchsia. Phony, like A.C. Doyle's fairies with their backwards shadows and fingertips lost to the scissors?
      A pit opens in the surface nearby. Round and fuzzy viral bunnies are nudged into crevices three, four at a time, or cling to a ridge, contravening gravity. They're dyed acid green. The purple hot dog buns are probably bacteria. Their needs are simple. This is their KOA, rugged enough to smack of the outdoors, but safe as houses. Wedged between bunnies, however, and with none of their outdoorsy freshness or beach ball/kitty toy esprit, the putti lounge on and under one another with opium negligence. They jam the crannies and festoon the ledges of the whorl. They're a nest of earwigs, pincers agape with insouciance. They're the Brownies without the will to fun. They're beggars with a trust fund. Someone should do something, rout them with a fingernail, hose them off the White House lawn. They issue in droves from strings of eggs, says the doctor, cruising each other, causing dandruff and waxy buildup, but only the ones that lodge a foot or a fist in a cranny will survive. The resultant abscess admits the putti further. Tucking head, shoulders, knee into the pocket, the putti extends itself until it is completely embedded and stretched to its full length, at which time it rests and stilly grows.
      The doctor's viewpoint is not widely shared. Please attend to an old but unsurpassed scientific treatise on the topic at hand: "Whether fanciful Stories of the Nesting habits of Putti have any basis in fact is doubtful. No Eggs have ever been found; nor is there any sign of organs in the putti capable of their production. Nor can this theory account for the sometime presence of the putti in places so far Internal to the human body that it is wonderful that Science ever thought she could explain this, by recourse to an account of such noble burrowing as rivals the excavation of the famed Sewers of Paris, in a creature as little given to energetic exertion as we have seen the Placid putti to be."
      Rival theories evoke the plant that sprouts new roots from its elbows where they touch down on the mulch. Filaments probe the tenderized meat around the putti and extend throughout the host, until the tip thickens and begins to scratch a seat for a new member. This fist of aggravated flesh twinges, "like teething all over," victims report. The encysted putti grows steadily, sustained by the surrounding tissues, until it reaches its mature size of approximately three and one half inches, at which point the growing stops, though the putti continues to nourish itself, and retains its body mass up until the death of the host, or until it is removed by a surgeon or harvested, illegally, by traffickers.
      Look down the alleys to observe our evocative tableaux: illustrating subsistence-level production techniques the harvesters bend over their hutches, forked sticks dipping and turning. They wink over their shoulders as they work, with the eyes of babies, glossy and pudged. The peppery fumes fret the lids, enter the bloodstream and make the whole body thicker and meatier. The harvesters jut without letup. We fear them but we scrub ourselves scarlet in our beds dreaming of them; their dicks are said to be thicker and more pointed than most. Uncut, they breed pink devilish smegma. Jenny and Lydia, neighborhood whores and lovers, roll on double-thick condoms and cut open the sticky bag afterwards in motel ashtrays with their nail scissors to look for the spawn they think swim with the sperm. They hunch over the tray, laugh and dump it in the toilet, clear out.
      In some people the putti are so close to the skin, or the skin so thin and so pale, that you can see their shapes, faint, like a minor rash or a blush that floods one spot with heat. These prodigies fill pages slick and reeking of chemicals; samples are available for viewing from the young man in the hairnet. But there are also the vain or pragmatic of both sexes who fake it, growing skilled with lipstick pencils, blush and powder, whose towels are a grotty carmine, whose wastebaskets are full of the putti's imprint on folded tissues, waxy cream staining the pulped fibers. The Shroud of Turin in Maybelline ("Scoundrel," or "Cherries in the Snow"). Fetishists will pay to trace the outlines of these figments (real or not), these spelunkers of the body, these deep-tissue divers. They cup their hands over imaginary swellings and persuade themselves they feel something stirring.
      And the fetishist who adores himself? He might scratch the itch with just the tip of the knife at first, a white tracing that becomes a welt that becomes a runnel that becomes a gash, until the tip touches flesh that doesn't touch back, and pries it out: a tiny greasy badger, a hairless hamster. Men who snuck off in the jungle to scratch their thighs with sharp sticks and dab Kotex on the wounds, lying on their sides in their own menstrual huts and moaning to the moon, are now in luck. They jab their biceps with fake knives, bleed and cry, clench their muscle and force out a little red whippersnapper, never mind that it's brainless and doesn't resemble Daddy. Wash it, hang it upside down, slap its butt if pantomime appeals to you. The world is reconfigured: the womb is anywhere flesh is.
      Some say the putti is a child that will not be born, that likes it in there. Some say the putti is a child that hates the world, and crawls back in to chew the womb in vengeance. Some say the putti is a sickness we have mistaken for a message. Some say the putti is a message we are treating like a sickness. Like locoweed, like mistletoe, it hangs on without ambition. It breeds without desire. It multiplies because it's good at that. Bit by bit your flesh becomes another's. Nothing is subtracted, just estranged.
      Please remember: it's no parable. The putti are stuff. They're not even as malignant as a tapeworm; they're vegetable, calm as carrots. Your own organs may be combative, aggravated, fibrillating over diddly-squat. They've got the heebie-jeebies, the willies, the shakes. Your putti, on the other hand: solid. Did they come from outer space, did shoals of pink spores die on Pluto, die on Neptune, Uranus, Jupiter, Mars, before they hit our hospitality? So what? They've got neither cortex nor Cortez. If they have a will to power, it's a program appended to their DNA, a genetic cruise control; the dial is fused to its setting, the needle is stuck.
      We can't stop talking about the putti, but they keep mum. Who killed Bitch Henry? Not they. The putti have no plans. They're a thickening at the point of intersection of our obsessions. Our desires have become pregnant with matter. People are not thingly enough: vision eclipses the eye, the sense of touch retracts the hand, words recant lips. It's easy to love a thought, but we want flesh unperplexed with mind. It is not human, but to slice it from the human exacts a mortal cost.
      Our handsome guards will feel you up as you exit. Please empty your pockets to make their job easier and more enjoyable.