What Happens In Between
A fairytale meditation on the sculptures of Sudarshan Shetty
Fiction : sculpture, fairytale, toys, Surrealism
Monday, April 09, 2007 07:23 GMT
The toymaker lived in in-between times. Times between the forgetting and the remembering.
He slept in his workshop, on a bed suspended from the thick beams of the roof with old rope, one that rocked slightly in the draft like an abandoned trapeze. He slept above a mountain of toys – old toys, toys he had just finished making, broken toys, toys he had pulled apart in order to reuse their parts – toys that climbed up the walls and fell over each other and left no more room to walk or work.
There were mechanical horses and giant walking dolls, there were things that spread their wings and flew away, and others that recoiled shyly when you touched them. There were aeroplanes packed with hidden tricks to surprise you and brightly coloured cars that did not look quite right. Shining toys with fresh paint were piled up to the rafters, crushing the layers of older, duller ones that had cracked open with the weight, spilling springs and wires, and providing convenient nests to families of rats and spiders.
In these in-between times, no one wanted these sorts of toys. There had been times when he could not make them fast enough for his lines of customers. Such moments would perhaps come again. But in these times no one bought anything from the toymaker.
One night he had a dream. He saw the house of the father with its old gramophone that always sang of abundant meals and genteel romances. But now everything was silent. It looked as if the house was choking.
The toymaker awoke. Though it was still night, and a cold wind forced itself relentlessly through the gaps in his roof, he was sweating. He stood up and stretched, and then walked nimbly across the scaffolding he had built for himself in the rafters. In the vast pile of toys that rose up from the floor far below he could see painted eyes blinking in surprise. He opened his cabinet of mirrors to look at himself. Sure enough, a narrow stream of blood was seeping from the glass.
“I had better leave at once,” thought the toymaker to himself. “I had better go to the house of the father.”
The sun had still not risen when the toymaker finished packing some food for the journey and departed. The sky was thick with birds that glided in long black corridors, all pointing in the direction that he had to go. He set off after them.
After a long day’s journeying, he arrived late in the evening. The lights were on in the house, and he knocked cautiously at the door. It was answered smartly by the doctor.
“Just in time,” he said jovially. “I might need an assistant here.” He wore surgical gloves.
The toymaker entered. The father was lying on a long table with his eyes closed. He was naked and withered. Tubes entered his body at every orifice, filling it with fluids from glass vats that stood in varying sizes all around the room; all the furniture had been piled into one corner to make room for them. A plastic tube came from his navel and drained red liquid into large tanks on the floor.
“Is it serious?” asked the toymaker.
“We won’t know until we go in,” replied the doctor. “The outside tells you nothing. Here: hold this.”
He held out a clamp.
“I’ll tell you when I need it.”
He took a knife and made an incision down the centre of the father’s abdomen. The toymaker winced as he cut. The doctor worked with intense concentration. When he had made his incision he held out his hand for the clamp. He expertly pulled apart the sides of the wound and clamped them open. The toymaker was feeling queasy. A strong smell emanated from inside the father’s abdomen that made him think of overripe oranges.
“Hmm,” said the doctor.
He reached deep inside the sleeping father and, after much manoeuvring, managed to pull out his lung. He gave it a quick wipe with a towel and inspected it under the light. It looked like a schoolboy’s leather satchel. He tipped it up and watched as a stream of red liquid flooded out and splashed onto the floor.
“He’s very sick,” said the doctor. “I don’t give him long. There’s nothing we can do.”
He put the lung back and sewed up the wound. He took off his gloves and began to pack his bag.
“It’s good you came. Otherwise he’d be all alone.”
“There should be a mother here too. I wonder where she is.”
“She’s in the hospital.”
“Is something wrong with her as well?”
“I don’t know. Rumours, you know.”
The doctor was ready to depart.
“Take good care of him. Call me when it’s over and I’ll come to collect my vats.”
He opened the door and disappeared.
The toymaker sat on the table next to the father. As he looked at his pale face and wondered what it meant, the heavy eyes opened.
They looked at each other for a while. When the father spoke it was only a whisper.
“Have you sold any toys recently?” he asked.
“No,” said the toymaker. “Not recently.”
The father nodded slowly to himself and closed his eyes for the last time. His breathing slowed and finally stopped. He lay still for a while, and then his flesh began to disintegrate until there was only a pile of bones lying on the table.
The toymaker left the house and ran out into the night. When he was far enough away he looked back over his shoulder just in time to see the house spread its wings and fly away.
The toymaker made his way hurriedly to the hospital. He looked for someone who could tell him where the patients were, but there was no one around. He ran through the corridors but could not find what he was looking for. He followed the sounds of screams until he found himself in a large hall.
Hundreds of pregnant women lay on a line of beds that stretched as far as the eye could see. They were naked from the waist down, and they lay with their knees in the air and their pubic expanse open like a highway. A bureaucrat with a loud and debilitating smoker’s cough walked up and down, peering between thighs and making notes on a clipboard. When he saw that a particular woman was ready to give birth, he signalled to a giant contraption that came running smoothly along rails on the ceiling, lowered itself into place between her legs, inserted the forceps, and pulled the child quickly and cleanly from inside, snipping and tying faster than you could see, and lying the wailing newborn alongside its mother – before rushing off to continue its endless task elsewhere.
As the toymaker looked up and down the hall he spotted the mother lying in one of the beds. He ran to her side, narrowly avoiding the flashing forceps that sped up and down.
“Here you are,” the toymaker said. “If I had only known, I would have come earlier.”
“Twins,” said the mother. “It’s going to be twins.”
At that moment she was pierced by pain, and the toymaker could see that her vulva was dilated to its maximum extent. The forceps came rushing from the other end of the room and lowered themselves unerringly into position.
“Twins!” she shouted at the machine. And then, to the toymaker, “Tell it I have twins!”
The machine needed no such assistance. Without a moment’s hesitation it dived twice into her womb, each time extracting a little bundle and dropping it precisely into the gap under her arm.
The first extraction delivered a glistening orange, the second a rosy apple.
“What is this?” cried the mother in horror. “An apple and an orange? Have I waited nine months to give birth to a miserable pair of fruit?” And she picked them up and threw them across the hall. She buried herself under the blankets. He put his hand on the curve of her shoulder.
“Leave me alone!” she cried.
The toymaker felt unhappy about the apple and orange and went to pick them up. They had not fared well from their collision with the wall. He put them in his pocket and, looking back over his shoulder at the shrouded mother, left the hospital.
Outside the hospital, the toymaker found himself in a never-ending forest. The trees were thick and overgrown, but they were made of steel and fibreglass, and bore no leaves or fruit. The ground was of bare stone, and there was thick silence all around.
He did not know how he had found his way into this forest, and the more he looked for a way out, the more lost he became. At night he sat under a tree and shivered in the cold. He wept for things he could not clearly remember. He walked for days in the forest until he was nearly dead with hunger.
One morning he awoke to see a woman standing and watching him. Her heels were high and dainty. She said,
“You look hungry.”
“I am,” replied the toymaker. “I have been lost in this forest for days. I have no food.”
“But you have an apple and an orange in your pocket. You have not eaten them.”
The toymaker thought about it.
“I don’t wish to eat them.”
“Then give them to me. I am hungry too.”
“No. No one shall eat them.”
The woman looked at him haughtily for a while.
“Then we have nothing to say to each other.”
She began to walk away.
“Excuse me!” shouted the toymaker. “Do you know how I can get out of here?”
“That way,” she said, pointing into the distance. “You have to find the river.”
She was already gone.
“Thank you!” he called out after her.
The toymaker took the apple and orange from his pocket and looked at them. They were feeling very cold to the touch.
“It is time to get out of here,” he thought to himself.
He gathered his strength and began to walk in the direction indicated by the woman. Before long, sure enough, he heard the sound of water flowing, and soon the monotony of the trees ended and he was on the bank of a giant river. It was so wide that the other side lay over the horizon, and its current carried monstrous things with it: floating houses with satellite dishes waving in the air, vast trees that had carried away small continents with their roots, and the corpses of many large mammals.
“I can never cross this river,” said the toymaker mournfully. “I would die immediately.”
He began to walk upstream, hoping that the river might become narrower, or that he would find a bridge. But nothing changed in the landscape. He walked all day, with the mighty river to his left and the forest to his right. Night fell, and still he carried on walking. He kept his hands in his pockets to warm the apple and orange.
At the moment when he was about to give up, to collapse with fatigue and despair, he began to hear music. It was a furious and twisted dance that came from inside the forest.
“It is so long since I have heard music,” thought the toymaker. “I wonder who can be here.”
He stepped cautiously in amongst the trees and followed the sound of the raucous melody. It became louder and louder, until at last he came to the edge of the clearing from where it came. He crouched among the trees and watched. The clearing was lit by a fiery moon, and, in the middle, there were three cellos that played to themselves with fury and delight. The instruments swayed and rocked as they played, each one trying to outdo the others with phrases more ornate and more devilish, shutting out their companions with piercing disharmonies and impatient pizzicato. There was no one else to hear what they played, but their lightning energy was irrepressible, and their strange performance seemed to require no audience.
The toymaker watched silently, and made his plan. He moved smoothly and noiselessly round the clearing, pausing whenever there was a gap in the music, treading carefully until he was behind the boisterous cellos. He chose his moment, and pounced on them, grabbing them by their three necks and dragging them together through the trees towards the riverbank.
The cellos screamed and leaped in his grasp, striking out with their bows, struggling against his grip and grabbing onto passing tree trunks. Their strings made terrifying sounds and their joint strength exceeded his own; and though the toymaker was frantic, though he sweated and strained against the three cellos, he could not overpower them all. In a moment of desperation he braced himself against a tree, took out his long knife, and stabbed each of the cellos violently in the heart. Their resistance faded, they let out a sigh, and slowly they became still.
The toymaker wiped his brow and caught his breath. He looked at the cellos lying on the ground, pierced and dead.
When he had regained his strength, he picked them up and carried them to the riverbank. He cut off the front panels from the cellos, and put them in the water, their necks pointing towards the opposite bank, like prows.
The toymaker took the apple and orange from his pocket. They were growing up so quickly. The orange was already a handsome boy, and the apple a girl, with
smooth skin and her hair full of questions.
He sat in the middle boat, and placed one small child carefully in each of the others. They began to move slowly across the river, shining in the light of the moon.
All the way to the other side, the bows moved in a slow, posthumous way across the strings of the boats, droning quietly and sadly in remembrance of what they once had been.