The pearl-white glaze of the eclair reflects the lights as I inhale the buttery scent of its choux dough. I tear off its tip with my front teeth. As I chew on the spongy dough, the taste of the sugary glaze, as well as of the cream that has choked the hollow inside of the eclair, swamps my taste buds and spreads across my palate. I scoop the cream out with my tongue. When I close my eyes to savor the sweetness, I picture the marrow inside the torn appendage of some alien arthropod from a pastry dimension. I wish I could justify buying enough eclairs to last weeks; they may keep me from sliding into an abyss that would swallow me alive.
Our Paleolithic child tugs on my right sleeve. When I look down at her face, the shock makes me snap my head back. Did someone smash a glass against her mouth? No, those are crystal-like sugar granules; otherwise she would have ended up with a hundred bleeding puncture wounds in the vermilion zone of her lips. But I wouldn’t put past this girl that if we left any glass within her reach, she might crush it against her teeth to honor her pre-apocalyptic ancestors as well as their mascot, the ground sloth.
“Eide, Eide,” she says.
Jacqueline gags on a morsel of puff pastry braid.
“She’s trying to say your name,” she remarks between coughs.
My chest swells with pride.
“Oh yeah. We have a special connection. I may also be Eide now.”
The child’s dazzling eyes smile at me as she holds up the sketchbook. She has drawn a person with a night-black, moppy head of hair. Inside the outline of the face, our child has left a void except for a black smudge that may represent the nostrils. On either side of the short torso, the two outstretched arms end at the wrists in rectangular stumps, as though a butcher had hacked the hands off with an axe. She has attempted to portray the checkered pattern, drawn in sunrise-orange, of the wool pyjamas I wore this morning as I warmed myself up after I almost suffered frostbite from my short stint in the Ice Age. From below the bottom hem of the pyjamas peek out bare feet that resemble fleshy hooves.
For most of my life I’ve felt invisible as I floated through this derelict society. A few foolhardy souls took time out of their day to interact with me, but I watched them from inside a plastic doll that had been gathering dust in the corner of some sordid sex shop before a random spark infused it with life. Although the spark should have sent the doll dashing across the city streets only to be crushed by a garbage truck, even that misfired. In any case, the portrait in the sketchbook proves that our little princess of a long-dead age has registered me in her untamed mind. It feels like a miracle.
I swallow a knot in my throat. What is this rush of feeling that the child has provoked? I want to grab her hand in case she wanders off and gets lost, or in case someone steals her away. If she were to come to harm because of my stupidity, of my inability to perform basic duties like any other human being, the crushing guilt would render my nights sleepless until I ended up jumping off a roof. But how could I take care of a child when I can’t even be kind to myself? Ah, I can count on Jacqueline, the most loving mommy that any human would want. As long as she remains by my side, she can compensate for my shortcomings, which means that she will take care of ninety percent of everything that rearing a child involves.
“I have spent most of the day with our girl, showing her the sights of the city, even buying her clothes, but she drew you first.”
“Well, she saw me naked.” I turn my head to the child. “But please, lick your lips clean, will you? My brain already comes up with enough violent scenarios unprompted.”
The child giggles defiantly. She ignores me to inspect the rows of crayons contained in the Crayola pack, pressing her fingertips against some flat tips, caressing other crayons, rolling a couple between her thumb and forefinger. She pulls out both a blue and a clam-shell-pink crayons, which she arranges with the previous ones close to the upper right-hand corner of the sketchbook.
Her attention slides to the fruit tartlets. Their folded bases, made of shortcrust pastry and filled with a vanilla-colored cream, are topped with clusters of distinct berries I can’t name. One tartlet flaunts round, bluish-grey berries that have a star-shaped opening, and the half-buried berries of another tartlet resemble crimson pinecones. The same selection of fruits were presented at breakfast in our ancestral home near Dijon in the year 1615.
“Yeah, those are raspberries,” I mumble. “They’re also called cloudberries, because they grow high up in the clouds.”
I’m struck by a weird memory. Before my journey to the future began, I used to pretend that I was an astronaut exploring the moon-like surfaces of my imagination. Once I spotted an ice world made of methane, ethane and propane, which lured me closer and closer. I was sucked into its gravity field, and shortly after I encountered alien orbs that looked like the berries that rest on top of these tartlets. Although those alien orbs were inedible and insipid, I lacked the chance to study them further, because the planet swelled and exploded like a watermelon under the pressure of my growing curiosity.
Our child snatches the raspberry tartlet. She crumbles a chunk of it in a crunchy bite, then she utters an appreciative noise. As she chews, crumbs spill from her lips onto the table and into her cup of chocolate. After the girl has swallowed half of the tartlet, she puts it down, grabs the midnight-black crayon, scratches her nose with it, and leans in to draw. While she presses the tip of the crayon against the paper, her expression morphs into one of fierce concentration.
The puff pastry braids are calling out to me like delicious sirens. I’m tempted to pick those brown raisins and the pieces of toasted cashew nuts off the surfaces to which they are glued, as if I were a baboon grooming a fellow primate to remove lice and ticks. When I bite into my chosen braid, the dough comes apart in flakes. A honeyed goo that tastes like apple ambushes my taste buds, sending a swarm of pleasurable signals that infiltrate my brain.
This tray of pastries alone will make me obese; my blood pressure is raising already. Didn’t Jacqueline announce from the beginning of our relationship her intention to fatten my malnourished self up, as part of her ploy to resuscitate my dried-up brain? When I used to return to my old apartment after work, I barely retained enough energy to shamble to the sofa, and the prospect of preparing a proper dinner represented a herculean task. Maybe mommy wants me to grow so fat that my knees would crumble under the weight of my reserves of lard. My breaths would come out in labored wheezes as I lay like a beached whale in her bedroom, and the legs of her bed would groan as they struggled to support my humongous mass. I don’t deserve a mother’s love, yet Jacqueline would spend hours seated beside me. She would massage my jiggling breasts to ease my pain. She would smile sweetly at me as she poured a blobby gruel through a funnel and down my throat to fill my ravenous void. At night we would lie there like a pair of pigs rooting in a pile of refuse, playing latrinal notes of pleasure at the aromas of salt pork mixed with garbage soup.
A gooey warmth in my crotch makes me rub my thighs together. I shiver from head to toe. I close my eyes and chew on a morsel of puff pastry braid until my heartbeat slows down.
Our child struggles to contain a giggle. She perks up and brandishes her sketchbook at us: it features a close-up portrait of Jacqueline. The girl has drawn the outline and the features of my girlfriend’s diamond-shaped face with careful strokes; she must have told herself in her Paleolithic language that if she dared to depict such a hot lady, she’d better do her justice. Single delicate curves evoke the model’s elegantly arched eyebrows. Our child had picked a blue crayon to color the irises of those feline eyes that stare ahead with determination. A corner of the full, red lips is turned in a naughty smile as if she were imagining herself playing with the viewer. The child has drawn in night-black each lock of hair from the middle parting to the way they flow over the shoulders of Jacqueline’s turtleneck sweater, which was colored with a soot-black crayon. Our little artist has also depicted the vertical lines of the fabric that come down from under the jaw and chin, following the folds of the close-fitted collar, and stretching outwards to follow the swell of the breasts.
Jacqueline gasps, then she puts her hand to her mouth. Her cheeks are flushed. When she lowers that hand, her pearly whites threaten to blind me.
“Oh, that’s me! Your artwork is incredibly detailed and flawless, sweetie! You have the soul of an artist.”
“She should have been born five or six hundred years ago,” I say, “when painters and sculptors were commissioned by aristocrats to immortalize their families and lovers. Perhaps our little girl would have grown up as a court painter to some duke.”
The child must have understood the gist of Jacqueline’s reaction, because a starry glow lights up her eyes. Is she falling in love with my girlfriend? In that case, could I blame her?
I gesture for the girl to pay attention to me, then I point at our mommy.
“Jacqueline,” I pronounce carefully.
The child raises her eyebrows. She turns towards Jacqueline, but her lips tremble in hesitation before she speaks.
Mommy nods. After an anxious rustle of cloth and a shaky breath, her face scrunches up, her eyes well up with tears. She purses her lips and presses the back of her hand against her eyelids.
Our child puts down the sketchbook. She shoots me a look of confused concern, like a cat who brought home a dead mouse as a gift only to be confronted with disgust.
How could I explain Jacqueline’s reaction to this Paleolithic child? She wouldn’t understand me anyway. I smile down at her, I pinch her chubby cheek, then I wipe with my thumb the sprinkle of sugar and tiny crumbs off her lips.
Author’s note: today’s song is “Sawdust & Diamonds” by Joanna Newsom (also this live version from sixteen years ago). I’m keeping a playlist of all the songs I’ve linked throughout this novel: right here.
I hadn’t expected this chapter to be so hard to write, although I would have expected it if I had bothered to think about it: the scenes in which the POV character interacts with new stuff tend to be troublesome. But it didn’t help that I’ve had to deal with increased anxiety, dizziness and lethargy recently. I have no clue to what extent I can blame the drug I take for my pituitary tumor, my heart issues, and the nonsense I’ve had to handle at work.
To be honest, as I was about to start writing the current chapter, I considered ditching it, as well as the following one. My notes for them felt mostly inconsequential. However, I wanted to write them and offer the girls some good times before the narrative turns let’s say a bit darker.
Anyway, good to be back. Hopefully my desire settles down for a day or two.
An enslaved neural network generated images related to this chapter: link here.