Once upon a time a hagfish loved another, and thus far was only doing what hagfish had always done.
Like other hagfish, I was hated by fishermen, who reviled our parasitical lifestyle and the indeterminacy of our sex. We lived on dead and dying fish, boring into the soft tissues near the anus and eating our way outward. When the host fish was just a skin stretched over bones, a deep-sea coracle, we pranced about in it with a triumphant kind of giddiness, making the lightweight behemoth hunker and hop along the ocean floor like a Chinese dragon in a procession, its emptied eyes affording glimpses of the flicking gremlin inside.
That was carnival time on the ocean floor. The skin and bones galleon careered through the sluggish currents, stirring up muck. Like the skew-eyed girl in high school, its head faced just off fore like someone posing for a portrait. Rough treatment, and soon enough our toys wore out, and we moved on.
Heeding the standard summons, my love and I set sail on the same day in our skin ships for the breeding grounds, across fields in which the tube worms rose and fell emitting telegraphic prophecies, past slits from which bubbles streamed, past rotting beams and rusting bulkheads. On the same day too we reached the plain where carcasses dotted the ocean floor like stinking cushions.
Strangers, we recognized each other, despite our sagging ballgowns. In the thick material light we wove our way through the fizzing mounds from which threads of bubbles rose punctuated by the occasional belched globule. Just so, in an old garden in which moss obscures the stone terraces, fountains and worn statuary, two great ladies of an old court might work the scaffolding of their rotting lace ballgowns over the uneven ground with habitual dignity and only a hint of maunder, falter, forget. Doddering in patterns whose purpose is forgotten, they’re still solid with accumulated history, sustained by it: institutional, big as barracks.
But when they reach each other, what? Play of fans? Euchre? A long hairpin pushed through the cheek to transfix the tongue like some stunned moth? They can’t recall. They beg their fans, their garments, the very ground to remember for them. Slowly they part their lips in a soft rain of face powder. Antique vocal cords tremble.
“Alas, I can never be yours,” she cried, “for like the edible oyster and the boring worm, Teredo, I change my sex from year to year, and this year I am a princess like yourself, a correspondence that boggles my mind with architectural symmetries beautiful yet austere, austere! I am filled with a helplessness truly regal, like that little white oyster irritated by the pea in her pallet, proven royal by her utter and almost mathematical impossibility, her X over zero indigestion. And while next year I am sure to be a handsome prince (ribald in virile company, with a good seat at horse, a stout arm in combat, and a courtly manner at my queen’s embroidered knee), the laws of nature will serve you with a like summons.”
And we sat down bobbing in our carriages and pondered this conundrum. “Whatever sex I am,” I confessed, “I feel somehow insincere. I know that not long ago I was a robust specimen of the other sex, and while perhaps it is only my body that alters and not my mind, I cannot help feeling marked by each new incarnation until I begin to feel unreal, a succession of slides projected on a remembering wall.”
“It’s just the opposite for me,” she answered. “I feel that I can only know the sex I am if I remember another sex; only then is my sex fully conscious, pure, and marked in its difference, only then do I truly know what it is not. I am a woman because I know what it is to be a man.”
“I cannot be a man, remembering what it is to be a woman, but no more can I be a woman, knowing I have in me the makings of a man.”
There we stuck philosophizing, awaiting the biological go-ahead. Ready to scrape the clay of our genitals away and reveal the ambidextrous grapples of a new sex. Then we would catch hold of each other with bold simplicity, irrefutable.
The time of our changes approached, and we fought the almost unbearable urge to abandon our watch for private business. Between breeding seasons is the time to drill into one fat flank after another and gorge ourselves to fuel our transformation. With fat globules popping out the sides of the mouth, we chew from the inside out, and do not neglect to scour the skin of the buttery layer this side of the scales or suck the bones clean, but we ignore the dribs, drabs and loose ends, that’s how you get fat, dealing in gross profits and leaving the peskily evasive snippets for the small fry to go after, abandoning the deflating skins without regret.
I waited, though I wanted to rave through the world’s bags emptied behind me. It was the time for immersion in the flesh, mine but especially theirs. The mind shuts down, the body makes its changes in this time; some say it is the smallness of the focus that permits that, a pinched gray dot not able even to know itself because there is no other place to know from. I wanted to wander the blue fields, which I imagined always dotted with carcasses, my thick fruit. A heathered light drifting softly down like a vertical current, like silted water from a river’s mouth. My body tenderly withdraws its eccentricity, passes through a moment of potent indeterminacy—when the tenderness shifts, as if at will, and can be felt first here, then here, such that I imagine one day (and this might be restful) I might wake up with an erotic wrist, a clitoral chin, spine, gill. Our changes are slow and seashell-cautious and symmetrical, a nonviolent rearing, a diffident balustrade, a somber cushioning, a competent, secretive staircase.
This was our only chance: that one of us might lag behind the other, opening a window in the wall. We watched and waited, but our biological clocks ticked in perfect time, and we laughed through our puckered sleeve mouths, oh oh oh, as we watched our genitals flower identically in perfect synchrony.
Males, we waited through another season, and again slid neatly across the finish line together.
We separated. I drove my decaying mobile home away, lurching over the terrain like an earthmover, and with melancholy resignation chewed my way inside another carapace. The old home, a paltry shrug of tatters, frayed and came undone.
In the new home I whistled as I worked, polished cookpots, sewed ruffles on curtains. My home was pulp pierced by spines; industrious, I worked my way around the vanes of bone that extended from the roofbeam, the spine. My walls were chubby, translucent, decaying. It was a time for putting my back into it, homesteading. I worked hard and relaxed at the end of the day in some rotty nook or other, a homebody. I carted bundles from here to there, my hair tied back, my nostrils coated with white plaster, the old-time fantasy of the happy homemaker, buns plumping under fluffy towels, flour handprints on the apron.
I missed her.
I set off again before my home was even cured, humping my pumpkin shell along with such vigor I lost chunks.
She had beat me to the site, swimming around in a crazy churning that shook the sides of whatever bygone fish in a manner I’d come to recognize as her own. I parked my own nearby.
Desire was never a feeling, it was a purpose that haunted the shape of what I was. The screwdriver doesn’t dream of turning the screw, it just works better for that than for clearing a drain or picking a lock. I thought my genitals were shaped urges, that their right use was implicit in their form, that body perfectly expresses thought, and that thought by that means acts uninterrupted on the world. My genders are supposed to wax and wane and with them wanders my desiring heart and in between that other stuff: the baggage of dead meat, techniques of butchery, nibble and bore, and wax and polish and scour and suckle clean, hunger and macabre tomfoolery with the emptied skins and a date at the breeding ground on Saturday.
That’s the life of a hagfish. It wasn’t writ that I’d be loitering painfully at the verge of this flat blue plane where sullen eddies in the sediment give away lovers’ sloppy gazebos, algal grottoes and parlors, thinking, Lucky lovers, ugly but matched as left shoe and right, while we sat dolorous above like poor teens in the cheapest seats with our laps full of wax paper rubbed vellum from sandwiches, noses and eyeglass-frames monstrous obstacles to a kiss. Keeping her distance (because who knows what codes might seize us and make us mannequins, killing each other out of misconstrued impulse), she coiled this way and (back flex) that, unhappy too.
There was only one place we might meet: exactly in between. Maybe there our no-genitals-at-all could rub their inadequacies together. In that span of time when I’m not anyone I would press my misunderstanding against her uncertainty, and indecision would be making love.
As my sex waned I move toward her over the silt which stirred under my belly and sifted over my back. I was reconciled to my ugliness at this moment when the entire ocean seemed to be passing a thorough, attentive tongue over my stiff vanes, my spines, my horny plates and my spots of loathsome smoothness. My needle teeth stung in my gums, vibrant with messages. I had a mouthful of cat-whiskers tickling, antennae. My sex was a collar loosening. Her small dull eyes were tiny beads sunk in the puckered flesh. They seemed to tighten and pull the skin inward around them. My genital face contracted in sympathy.
I felt my skull boxing in my brain. I felt my skin bagging my skull. I felt the muscular length of me turning and flexing and I knew all these things were glad collaborators of the machine. I had to attend.
I peered through a clear dot in a moiré that rendered all indistinct. The dot was not large. I forced it larger. Neurons blazed impatiently in my brain and I imagined some new bridge was forming. I felt the churning in my flesh and I knew I had felt it before, but that I had never before known myself feeling it. The surface burned.
Something inside me clocked. Out incited. A pinched part smudged thin inverted and blistered. Flared remote envelopes advised a pencil and glue flow lapsed under the limb. Glow spattered amiable oranges sunk in an underlayer.
It was unrecognizeable. I bunked in sundered demispheres and against me lay nine suckered antebellum under gauze. I spilled an inside igloo over and that one answered ambient revolver. Trigger livid smelled an entry overlaid with lint advantage. Notorious exchanged and no thrip infiltrated anything. Neither of us touched something else and something liked it.
We wandered off and chewed, impressed. For one instant nothing happened.
At first we were tiny and they were big as city buses. None of us had any arms or legs. Neither did they; that made us feel closer to them. With undulations of their long bodies they swam through the sea like ourselves. From below they were dark against the pewter of the water’s underface. We called them angels.
When I grew older I heard the stories about them and learned to tell them too. I swam with my cronies and grew larger. Occasionally, we saw them pass overhead and we strained toward them with all our being, Johnny, Armand and I, our limbless bodies like fingers pointing, or iron filings enchanted by the dreams of a magnet. We dropped whatever we were doing to worship them. Like long soft-padded curving arms, they seemed to beckon indolently.
They did not notice us, however. We agreed: that was as it should be. What in them could be receptive to the motes we were? But we knew the story, that if we swam toward them they would swivel in our direction and receive us. We wondered why.
Armand left us to lurk in some remote sargasso. He said he wanted to grow up. We didn’t know what he meant. Johnny and I loitered at the edge of every eddy and rode the currents to cold places and back until something ate Johnny and I was alone.
At last I met her in a coiling I was caught in. Never knowing how to approach, I had kept my distance. Never having a hat to doff, I’d kept mum. Forced into proximity, though, I was enterprising enough to hand her my card. She returned it, said Ed, Ted, Fred, the identity of others is not important when you are self-sufficient and big as a city bus. She steered in a semicircle and opened an unforeseen opening.
I went stiff for half a second, then melted into jelly, spilled toward her. Vacuum sucked. She stammered around me like an epileptic mouth. She spoke me in: I became Fred Ted Ed, a counting rhyme or riddle song, the chaff of unmeant words.
I swam straight into the heart of the resistance and found that precisely there I could make way. She was the color of my eyes’ experience of pressure, flare-ups in the dark. She was a labyrinth and I was insubstantial as a thread. Still, I had the feeling that I wore her.
I was made to extinguish myself in the flesh of another. I was a dab, a mote, a mite. But small as I was I vibrated all over with a love of piercing beauty, like the smidgin of flesh in the throat of a singer. I remember these things only dimly, but I think it was that way.
He almost ran to me, overturning my ottoman, decoupage drink tray with the green decanters, dart gun, surveying instruments, anatomical model of the human ear. He scrunched up close, his whole body resembling one dapper mustachio coiled in alert self-conscious agitation. He was a proud whip self-cracking, a line graph running through the possibilities. I saw him as the callow lover with pimply brow in a stereoscopic photograph, inching on his tensed haunches sideways along the couch to the girl. A worm.
I’m a worm too. But relatively speaking I’ve got the dimensions of a diesel truck, a tank, a redwood tree. He’s a pencil lead, a basting stitch, a toggle-switch. He’s pins and needles in my private passages. Some people make much of the different lengths and volumes of body parts so close to the same size I can’t see the difference. They play with dominance and submission because the game is close, and fear and power occupy the same place in them and struggle together. They get something out of that turpentine and water mixture, that mingling of unmixable fluids and tsunami at the interface. What’s that game to me? This fight’s fixed. Who’d spar with a pudding? Pommel an olive? Whup a wet leaf?
Sex: some dull Ed sprints at me, fakes, doubles back, pirouettes and disappears into me like a mouse in a hole. Never comes out again. Is the ghost in my attic, flickering like a maladjusted TV. Becomes a fond notion, a cast in the eye. Ouija hiccup.
It’s a strange kind of self-sufficiency I (we) have now. I am happy alone, “alone”; I need no one, not even to make babies (I do that myself, with inner Ned) yet I’ve always got company I can’t talk to or touch but know is here by the very fact I am self-sufficient. I don’t know whether to resent or pity Fred, or whether it’s absurd to do either because he’s now a part of myself. Do I resent my arm for siphoning off my blood for its own purposes? Of course not. Do I wish I didn’t have to tote it around?
In a social sense, though, Ted is a stranger. Hardly had I made his acquaintance—and I don’t even remember if he had family, or where he’s from—hung his hat behind the door and poured him a Tom Collins than he’d shucked shirt and shoes, slacks and boxers and digital watch, and made a dive for my egg-sac. And I never heard from him again.
I hadn’t even thought to close the blinds. I guess I imagined we’d sit and tell each other a little about ourselves. I guess I thought I’d feel the magic. Sure, I was skeptical, I had my doubts; they’re so little after all, men, it’s always been hard for me even to think of them as the same species. I mean I almost mistook him for the worm in my tequila; he was that small. And him coiling and uncoiling nonstop as he maneuvered around me. I felt like a mother spaceship in slow rotation on the screen, astronauts rappeling over my surface in symphonic silence. I felt that big and peaceful.
I wanted to say to him, you, you’re trying so hard to bed me. If you wait, you can become me instead. Grow thick and long and serene, lacking nothing but an egg-sac add-on to need nothing anymore, and then complete, hermaphroditic, world-encompassing forever. I almost pitied him, said stay away, don’t come seeking us out in our bachelor apts, calling phone machines to listen for a female voice. Hang on and you’ll have it made, never again have to wiggle wiggle that hairfine little body of yours.
But I didn’t say it. Didn’t have time. The blinds were up but if the neighbors blinked they missed it. He was on me and in me and gone and I hardly knew what happened, sat swirling my tequila and keeping an eye on the pile of clothes till it dawned on me that he wasn’t in them anymore.
He entered me, as you humans like to say. But Teddy shut and latched the door, Teddy don’t come out no more. Put your stuff in the red cubby, Ned, and welcome to nursery school.
Did I feel different? Biologically, no. But I must say it drives me crazy to think of Ed sucking away at the wall of my egg-sac, rock-in the warm fluid, and I don’t know the first damn thing about him, whether he likes wind-surfing or rock tumbling, what shows he catches. And there it is again, the question: Do I resent this creature who has penetrated my core and set himself up there with cabin and snowshoes and rabbit traps, in permanent residence, fishing my streams and hunting my forest glades?
Sometimes I can tell he’s there. Archetypal images occur, recur. Jonah in the belly of the whale. Rapunzel and all those other lovelies in towers, on islands, atop glass mountains conjured up by jealous fathers. The duck in the wolf’s belly. Little Red Riding Hood ditto. I think these images float up to me like his dreams of identity. That wordlessly he still impinges himself on my consciousness, supplying it with metaphors that bias my own thinking. I think he would like me to mistake him for myself and lose the knowledge of my own right size. He would like me to make my meat a puppet of the tiny worm of spirit that clings to my strength and dreams my dreams for me with an irony that does not mask its insecurity.
I would like to see what he’s doing in there, what in a sense I’m doing in there or could have done. I envy the man with the pane of glass set in his abdominal wall so the creatures of science could view the factory in which his organs labored. In old school science films they showed a tiny man in a polygonal control room in the brain. There was no indication that women had anything different upstairs. That’s how I see Fred, as a nervous, middle-aged white twerp who likes to put his tiny feet up on the panel and catnap.
I don’t know him, I don’t like him, and I don’t understand him. Yet he is my own past history. He is my child self, stopped at the splitting of the paths. We don’t understand each other, but something understands something, the way one gear understands the other with which it meshes.
Ever since I grew into the bruiser I am now (glossy, sleek, with the unsteady, disbelieving poise of a drag queen and the heft of a buffalo) I’ve sailed about, smug and immaculate, unimpeachably female. What I won through self-denial (abjuring nail-biting and angel-ogling) can never be taken from me. I rove through the ocean and the males, those nail-parings, those carrot-peels, are ripplemarks of my passing. It gets me that what I tried so hard to put behind me (reviling myself, fighting down my own desires) is exactly what I spread myself for. Why did I try so hard to be different from types like Ted?
Quick as a wink, up he came and IN he went and where there was one there are two. In the very mid of me there he is, the other sex, my bygone past and my rejected destiny. I am fucked by the child I used to be before I grew into the woman I am. My past curls round and enters me at the place of origin of us both, and starts the game over. Pete and Repete were sitting on a fence Pete fell down who was left Repete. My past curls round, Repete, Repete.
My lover booms one thousand times an hour, six or seven hours a night, especially on damp, windless days when the sound carries well over the grasslands. His air sacs become almost spherical. He perches at the edge of a hollow bowl in the ground that he constructs to amplify his call. He cannot fly. I cannot fly. We love each other; we have not met each other yet.
On a moist still night his singing pummels my soul to dissolution. The booming goes on and on and into the center of it I go homing. The booming and my faithful listening ear are already love happening. My ear, his dish are rhyming shapes. His voice penetrates my ear, my ear reels forth his voice.
The voice between us takes almost palpable form, it is a great still shape in the air, like Ernst’s bomber with the arms of a woman. Just so our bond is beyond us, my lover puffing himself up to a ludicrous ball to pump out super-parrotic calls, and I humble and responsive, a ground-scurrier. We do not fly but it flies, in a still sort of way; our love hovers over both of us and frightens us to duck even closer to the earth.
His voice is shaped by impersonal laws into a perfect geometrical figure, a sphere expanding around another sphere expanding around another sphere expanding too. I hurry toward the center of the nested spheres, panting, dirty, and ungeometrical. Beside our accomplished love overhead, I am a contingent and unnecessary figure.
The scree I zigzag through, head down (the straight thread of our bond digresses in crochet patterns through the brush) is a meaningless obstacle, but enough to slow me down. I gallop, I hustle, through mazes whose principles I am proudly too stupid to grasp; I fling my bruised chest against the walls and somewhere, some clod or bramble gives way.
When I push through the last tuft of grasses and see my lover puffed up into a ball with the effort of sending forth a voice so much larger than himself, I laugh at him. I can’t help it. He in turn finds me scruffy and ridiculous, bent over with shopping bags and extra coats. We come together in that, in our absurdity.
We are blind, hedged in by the slurry of decaying vegetation, clods kicked up by larger animals, scruff of grass. We run like little mice through the underbrush, without dignity. We resemble amputees. I know there is something embarrassing and suspicious about birds that scuttle with dirt in their feathers, but that anchors us. It is a kind of payment, like our small numbers. For it is not that we were forced, aeons past, by the misfortune of our place in a close-up world to learn to broadcast love. No, it was the grandeur of our love that consigned us to the ground.