Sunday, May 08, 2005
The Mythical Regrets Of Carter Mink.
Of course I can't expect you to understand. When you look at me now you just see a washed up old man with no money or family to rely on. But you only see the present. You see the dark circles under my eyes, but you don't think about how they got there. These circles, these wrinkles, they're life signs. I'm someone who's lived, sometimes happily, sometimes not, but that doesn't matter. All that matters is that in my life I've seen more things than you could ever imagine. I've been to places that you didn't know existed. I've danced with mystical women on rooftops, women who could set your hair on fire just by looking at you. I've seen the sacrifice of small children to Tribal Gods. I've played Monopoly with Presidents and Twister with Sultans. I've lived, so don't feel sorry for me.
I'm happy with my life and what I've achieved in it. I may not have left much for the next generation, but at least I've appreciated what was left by the generation before me to its full extent. I'll die with only two regrets. The first is that when I was fourteen years old I killed a town and the sea life around it.
And the second is that I drink too much.
I guess I'd better explain the first now I've started.
When I was a boy I used to swim in the warm ocean off the coast of San Puerdo. I used to get up at dawn and run naked to the sea front, knowing that no one would see me and that it didn't really matter if they did, because I was just a boy and could be excused these lapses of decency. I would dive head first into the shallow water and keep my head under until I felt as if my lungs might burst.
In those days I could see the fish under the water as clearly as I can see you now. I didn't need a mask or an aqualung. Anyone can dive underwater and take pictures of the coral if they've got a can of air on their back. Any idiot can laugh at the stingray if they've got a glass sheet in front of their eyes. But people who do that deserve to be eaten by the sharks. They're just tourists and they devastate the ocean.
No, when I was a boy, or young man I should say, I didn't worry about that kind of thing. And because I didn't the sea life respected me. They took me to the places where they wouldn't take anyone else. A lot of the sea creatures would put on a show for tourists, swimming around in circles and doing their dumb fish routines. Over the years they had found out that pleasing the humans rather than eating them was the best way to stay out of trouble. But the fish knew me and they used to take me with them to their secret places, the underwater worlds that most people think are just legend.
Once I followed a pink eel to an underwater cave. Air was locked inside and its walls shone. I remember that I touched one of the walls and it crumbled away. This cave was made of gold dust. I must have been the first human there for hundreds of years. For a while I thought I might have been the only one, but that was before I found the ring, embedded in the cave wall, the same golden colour as the rest of it.
I knew that I had to have it. It wasn't just any ring, it was more like two rings joined together at the side. Just two golden bands stuck together that a person could wear over two fingers. I grabbed it, pulled hard, and shoved it over the middle two fingers of my right hand.
It was only a few seconds after this that the walls began to shake. I realised immediately that I'd done something terrible, but it was already too late. The next thing I knew the cave was collapsing around me and I was under the water again. I remember being shot to the surface, seeing the sea rush past me like a Jacques Cousteau film playing twenty times too fast. It still seemed as though I was flying upwards for minutes. I didn't realise how deep I had gone.
I remember I was gasping for air when I felt the burning pain in my leg. At first I thought I had been stung by a jelly fish and I plunged desperately to get away from it, swimming as hard as I could towards San Puerdo, just to try and shake the pain off. When it eased off a little I dared to looked back. The water behind me was black. I watched for a long time, treading water slowly as I pondered what was going on. Eventually I swam back to the shore. My leg was beginning to sting again and I was feeling tired.
When I reached the shore I realised how badly I had been hurt. Somehow my leg had been torn apart in the collapse. I remember pulling the deep wound on my calf apart and seeing the gold dust inside. I tried to scrape it out, but the pain nearly made me pass out. I limped home to my mother, the Great Montessa, who tied it up in bandages and told me not to go swimming for a few days. But she didn't know much about medicine and my leg went septic. Eventually a doctor threatened to amputate it and I ran away. But by that time San Puerdo was a very different place. I was lucky and the wound healed on its own. I often think about the gold dust in my leg. On more than one occasion in my life I've thought about trying to cut it out, to see if I could use it to buy a drink.
When the business men heard that there was oil off the coast of my little town they moved in. The local men were out of jobs because it had killed all the fish. The pearl divers couldn't see the clams anymore because the sea was too black. Just because of my greed I had ruined the town. Once I'd gone, I knew I could never come back. I became a wanderer, fated with the knowledge that I was the one who had pulled that plug out of the cave. I kept that fateful ring pull on my fingers for years, a reminder of what I had done. I regret it every day and I'll never forget how that pink eel had trusted me and he suffered with his life because of it.
But that was years ago. I don't want to dwell on the prehistoric past now. Not when I've done so many other things that are just as special. Far more special than swimming with the sharks and the otters at San Puerdo.
"Well?" asked Carter. "Don't you have any questions?"
I thought for a moment and shook my head.
"I know why." Carter said again. "It's because you don't believe me."
"Oh no." I said. "I do."
"You're afraid to ask me questions because you think I might be caught out. You don't really think these things happened and you don't want to disappoint yourself by proving it."
"No." I protested. "I do believe you."
"Well," said Carter. "Don't be afraid to ask then."
"I won't." I answered.
There was another long silence while Carter looked at me.
"Well?" he said, showing his abrupt side again. "Go on!"
"GO ON! There must be something."
"Well," I said. "What happened to the ring?"
Carter tutted and showed me the palm of his right hand. He wiggled the two stumps where his middle two fingers used to be.
"I'm sorry." I said.
"You seem to have stumbled across my second regret." he said.
About forty years ago I was in Bucharest. I had ended up there one way or the other, I can't really remember how, and I was making a fair enough living by performing shadow puppet shows. I was good too - really good - I had perfected it over the years, slowly learning to make deers and geese and horses with my hands. I could make them fly. And it was in Bucharest that I first fell in love.
I remember spotting her in the audience that had gathered around my show one night. Macabo was in charge of the spot light-
"Who's Macabo?" I blurted out, seeing my chance to please Carter by asking a question.
Carter looked at me in disbelief. He was silent for a long time before saying anything.
"Well, yes, very good." he said calmly. "Maybe I didn't make myself clear. Don't disturb me while I'm actually talking. There will be a chance to ask questions later."
"Oh," I said. "Sorry."
Carter took another deep breath.
Macabo was my monkey. He had adopted me in Bombay about five years before and he just wouldn't leave me alone. Eventually I grew used to him and put him into my act. He was in charge of the light that I needed to get really good shadows on the walls. He used to shine it in my face so all I could see was the silhouettes of my audience. I suffered from nerves a lot when I was younger and not being able to see who I performed to made me feel much better.
Anyway, I was performing in Bucharest one night when I fell in love with a member of the audience. I'd never felt anything like it before, like I had been hit with a rock. I was performing a tricky scene, a crocodile attacking a wildebeest I think, and all of a sudden I saw her. I swear to you that I fell in love with this woman before I even saw her face. Something about her silhouette was different from all the others. Maybe it's just me looking back now, but I swear that when I first caught that glimpse her shadow had a silver lining.
I walked out of the spotlight and into the crowd in a daze. Macabo didn't know what was going on. He squawked at me, pulling my shirt, telling me to get on with the show, but I didn't listen. I couldn't listen.
Then suddenly my senses came back. Every day since I had pulled out the ring I had thought about how being impetuous had ruined my life. I would not do it again. Suddenly I could hear the screeching of Macabo again and the murmurs of the crowd. I knew that I had to finish my performance. I went back to the show.
By this stage in my career I was drinking heavily. I had always been partial to a drink, ever since the medicinal powers of alcohol were introduced to me by an Argentinean prostitute who had taken a shine to me in my first year of wandering. I can't blame her for my insatiable thirst though. Her life was hard enough as it was and she was just teaching me the same trick that she used for hiding from life. Alcohol works as well, don't believe anyone who says that it doesn't. For a short while at least.
Oh, enough of this! The reasons why I started drinking are unimportant. The fact is that for most of my life I've been a heavy drinker and the night after this performance I was drinking more than ever. I was on my own again. Macabo had left me on another of his futile missions to mate a pigeon and I was so lonely. I was sitting in a tiny French style bar, so close to tears. It's strange, but I remember this night more clearly than most others, even though I was drunk. If I shut my eyes now I can remember the colour of the table cloth as though it's still in front of me. I can remember the walls and the speckled tile floor. I must have looked such a fool that night. I was a grown man, shrieking with rage for my lost love, calling for drinks, shouting for my monkey. It still makes me cringe.
"Waitress!" I remember calling, as my head rested on the table. "Waitresssss!!!"
Eventually I heard a distant voice above me. I could hardly work out was she was saying, but the voice comforted me. It was so soft, an angel's whisper cutting so easily through the noise in the bar.
"Monsieur?" she said and in my flustered mind I thought that this was how my mother, the great Montessa, might have sounded if she had been French and hadn't smoked her pipe so much. "Monsieur?"
I looked up, trying hard to focus on the tiny head leaning over me. It took me a few seconds, but finally I managed. And for the second time in three hours, I fell in love.
She must have been the same woman who I had seen earlier. It seems too unlikely that I could fall in love twice on the same day with two different people. I'll still never know, but it must have been. I was very drunk, but I knew that it wasn't just the alcohol that made me feel this way. The way this woman raised her eyebrows sent a shiver down my spine. The way her lips curved into a slightly mournful pout made me feel lost in grief, made me want to change my life to make her smile. I was just sure, even though my head was spinning and I was struggling to peel my tongue off the roof of my mouth - I was sure that somewhere in the pitying way she looked down at me there was something that told me she could feel the same way. I couldn't miss my chance this time - I had to sober up.
Maybe it's different for others, but once I'm drunk, I stay drunk.
I knew that I was too inebriated to be able to talk to the waitress coherently and to make it worse the alcohol compounded my emotions so that I felt more desperate still. Eventually I passed out, the pressure of sobbing too much for my brain to take.
The next thing I knew it was daylight and I was in a strange apartment. I was lying on a bed. It was a sparse room with few decorations around. The walls were white and the paint was peeling off, revealing more white paint underneath. I remember staring at the ceiling, it was cracked badly and it sunk down in the middle.
There was a creaking noise behind me and I turned around. Standing up in a tin bath in the corner of the room was the waitress I had seen last night. She was naked, washing herself with a sponge.
Now don't get me wrong, my experiences of an erotic nature with women by that time were many and varied. This wasn't the first naked woman washing herself in a tin bath that I'd ever seen. It wasn't even the first in Bucharest, not even the first on a Friday in Bucharest. But that didn't mean I wasn't shocked. For one thing I didn't even know this woman, not that this was particularly unusual. But this time I had no recollection of ever having anything to do with her, apart from our brief encounter the night before. I didn't know her name, or how I had got to the apartment. And to top it all this was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I even wanted to tell her that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. And this time I meant it and I wasn't drunk anymore.
The woman seemed so unaware of me that for a second I was worried that she hadn't realised I was there. I coughed, just trying to make my presence known. She turned to look at me.
"Hello Carter." she said, her French-Rumanian hybrid accent making the hairs on the back of neck stand up.. "I see you are up".
I kept my frozen smile, eyes staring straight at her face. "Yes." I said, shrugging.
Her smile fell and there was a moment of silence before she spoke.
"You look puzzled Carter." she said. "Are you puzzled?"
I smiled, and shut my eyes for a moment.
"Yes," I said. "I'm confused. I don't know how I got here, and I don't know who you are."
she looked slightly surprised, but eventually she smiled again.
"No, I suppose you don't." she said. "I'm sorry that I had to drug you."
I shook my head. "Drug me?"
"Yes, Carter. I'm sorry. But I needed you so badly last night, and I was desperate."
I paused in thought as I looked at her. I let my eyes slip away from her face for a second and scan over her body. It was the worst thing I could possibly do. She was more beautiful than I could ever have hoped. She didn't have a perfectly symmetrical figure, but there was something about her that it's difficult to describe. It was her skin, I think. Something about her skin. It seemed to shine, not in an oily kind of way, but from somewhere within. It was an energy more than anything else. It must have been her silhouette. God, if she had wanted me, drugs wouldn't have been necessary.
"What do you mean?"
"I saw you last night Carter, and I realised that if I didn't take you when I had the chance, I would regret it forever. It was wrong of course, and I'm sorry, but it's your face. You have a unique face."
I think that I blushed. "Thank you."
"It's ugly in a way I've never seen before."
"Yes, It's one of the most wonderful faces I've ever seen. You're young, but your face is worn down like an old man, your skin is fresh, but there are age lines in it that look so deep that they go through your skull. Carter you're the most wonderfully ugly man I've ever seen."
I'd never been described as ugly before. Unique looking of course, but never ugly. It was the shock of it that made me react badly, I felt like an idiot as soon as I'd done it, but my vanity had been hurt in a way that I didn't realise was possible. Shit, I even feel angry about my reaction now.
"Not as ugly as you" I said. It just came out, and echo of how I used to deal with anyone who would pick on me in San Puerdo.
I know, I know. I learn nothing. Am I destined to repeat my stupidity until my body gives in to the abuse I put it through?
As soon as I said it I wanted to take it back, I wanted it never to have happened. Somehow, without moving, she seemed so hurt. And that hurt me.
"You think I'm ugly, Carter?"
I paused before saying anything.
"No..." I said. "No. Of course not. I was just shocked. I don't even know you. I'm sorry."
The woman looked down at her body, suddenly absorbed in the task of washing herself. She seemed to be trying to get some kind of mark off her arm.
"I wasn't trying to hurt you, Carter. When I said you were ugly, I meant it as a compliment. I said ugly in the same way as someone might say glorious, magnificent. But when you said it you just wanted to hurt me. You were just out to cut me down. You meant ugly in the same way as someone might say grotesque or carnivorous. Why do you want to hurt me Carter?"
I didn't know how to react. She concentrated more and more on the mark on her arm, rubbing it harder and harder.
"I..." I stuttered. "I..."
"Sometimes I think that last night meant nothing to you, Carter. Sometimes I think that I don't even know you at all."
"You don't know me!" I said, aware that I was making the situation worse. "I'm sorry. You're not ugly at all. You're beautiful. I reacted badly. I love you. You shouldn't worry about what I say. I've never been able to speak to people that well. I can do shadow puppets, but that's it. I'm sorry. I drink too much."
The woman stopped rubbing her arm and looked me in the face. "Carter Mink. When you say you love me, is it true?"
Had I really said that? I had. "Yes."
She smiled again. "I am Catana."
Somehow I had heard it before. I knew I didn't know anyone by that name, but it just seemed familiar. I assumed it was a sign from the heavens. It wasn't until five years later, when I was walking the streets living as a bum, drunk twenty three hours a day, and always carrying a stuffed monkey under my arm, that it suddenly hit me. Catana had been the name of the Argentinean prostitute who had shown me the powers of alcohol. I should have known from the start to avoid people with that name. They're bad for the liver.
Catana stepped out of the tin bath and walked towards me. She took me by the hand and we walked into another room where I saw a large statue. It's funny, but I remember being immediately repulsed by it. It wasn't until a few seconds later that I realised it was me, as naked as she was.
"What do you think?" Catana asked.
"It's a good likeness." I answered politely. "I'm not sure if all the proportions are to scale, but..."
"...It's an exact likeness, Carter. I made a mould."
I suddenly realised what had happened to me.
"You drugged me, stripped me naked, and made a full body cast, all last night?"
"It was a busy night Carter. But it was worth it. This is the best thing I've ever done. I'm sorry that I had to do it Carter. I'm sorry."
I had forgiven her for drugging me already, but I thought I had better leave her alone for a while.
"Where's my monkey?" I asked her.
"Your monkey?" said Catana, with a shocked look on her face.
"Yes, Macabo, my monkey. Where is he?"
I looked at Catana. Her face was pale. She put her hand to her mouth.
"What's the matter?"
"Oh Carter," she said. "Carter. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Carter."
"WHAT?" I shouted, starting to get annoyed.
Catana pointed at a block of plaster in the corner.
"WHAT IS IT?" I shouted again, but as I looked closer I knew what she had done. There was a tail sticking out.
"No." I said.
"Carter. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I thought I could do you both at once, but I forgot. Carter. Carter, I'm sorry."
"GET HIM OUT OF THERE."
"He'll be dead already Carter."
"GET HIM OUT!"
I ran over and grabbed the block. I tried to prize it open with my hands, but it wouldn't move. I couldn't get to him.
"He's dead Carter." Catana pleaded. "I've killed him."
"NO!" I shouted. "NO!"
I threw the block across the room. It shattered and Macabo slid to the floor, white and stiff. I grabbed him and ran.
Carter stopped and rubbed his eyes.
I shook my head.
I left Bucharest. I knew that I couldn't live in a city with that woman. I was still in love with her, but I couldn't forgive her for this.
I remember walking the streets in a daze for a long time. I kept Macabo with me and slowly the rain washed the plaster off his fur. It took a long time before I realised that my gold ring was missing.
I began cursing myself for drinking so much. I knew that if I hadn't been drunk that night then none of this would have happened. I started drinking more. It worked again, for a little while, until I realised that I had no money left. One night I tried to perform a shadow show without Macabo. My hands were shaking so much that people couldn't tell my deer from my sparrows. I was in a bad way.
Eventually I got back to Bucharest and somehow ended up at Catana's door. I kept wondering if I was fooling myself. I did want my ring, but had I really gone all the way back to Bucharest for that? Maybe I just wanted to see Catana again. I couldn't get her out of my head. I knew I still loved her. She had ruined my life, but I loved her.
I knocked on her door and waited. There was no answer, but the door wasn't that secure and it opened when I gave it a quick shove. I stepped inside.
"CATANA!" I shouted, louder than intended.
There was no answer.
I wondered through the apartment, until I got to my statue. Catana had added to it since my last visit. A monkey was holding my hand. It was a white plaster monkey, but it wasn't Macabo. It had a cartoon face and eyes that bulged out of its head. I almost laughed. The real Macabo hung limply by my side and I looked down at him.
"I love her, but the woman's mad." I said to him.
"She was mad." said a voice from behind.
I turned around and saw an old woman.
"She was mad." she repeated.
"Now she's dead."
"She suffocated herself in plaster."
"She drowned herself in plaster. We think she was trying to make a mould."
I didn't feel anything, not sadness, not even surprise. The old woman and I looked at each other for a long time before I nodded.
"Would you like to stay here for a while?" the woman asked.
I nodded again and she walked away. I looked back at my statue and started to laugh.
It's difficult to explain now, without sounding cruel or malicious. I just couldn't help it. There just seemed to be something funny about my statue. My naked body, standing up and holding a cartoon monkey, and a look on my wonderfully ugly face that just seemed to say: "WHAT THE HELL?"
I stopped when I saw it was wearing my ring. Just for a moment I thought about leaving it there, but then the urge grabbed me and I pulled at it. I never learn. The middle two fingers broke away easily and I shoved it on.
That night I went back to my old spot, set up a light on my own, and gave one of the best shadow shows I'd ever done. Maybe that's just me being romantic, but it really did feel like that. The audience loved it and after the performance I had easily enough money to get a bed for the night and a few drinks.
It wasn't until I was drunk again that it suddenly all hit me. Catana was dead! I had only known her for a few minutes, but I had never felt as strongly about anyone in my entire life. I kept blaming myself. I shouldn't have left her. She had killed Macabo, but it was an accident, and she had been sorry.
I started thinking about my statue standing in her apartment. I remembered her saying that she thought it was the best thing she had ever done and I felt so guilty about taking the ring back. I decided that there was only one thing that I could do. I don't actually remember doing it, but I remember searching for a knife.
It's hard to cut you're own fingers off. Don't let anyone tell you it's not. Even if you're drunk it's hard not to just give up. I remember sobbing, sick at my weakness, sitting on a bed in the middle of Bucharest and hardly even bleeding. I couldn't even puncture the skin. But I kept going. I went out and I got the knife sharpened. I knew it was the only thing to do. After a few hours I got to bone. I managed to dislocate my fingers by holding them with my foot and then standing up as quickly as I could. Then I sliced through the ligaments. I was screaming constantly. The pain was intense, evil, but with the drink I managed to separate myself from it. I managed to keep it over there somewhere. I imagined Macabo was holding it for me in a golden box.
He couldn't hold it in there for long. Perhaps if Macabo had really been with me it wouldn't have been so hard. Eventually a fat man burst into my room, sick of the screaming, he took me to a doctor.
I looked at Carter.
"You cut your own fingers off?"
Carter shrugged. "I told you I drink too much."
"But why would you want to do that?"
"I was so drunk that night that I'm lucky I didn't do something even more stupid. I had some vague idea in my mind that Catana's masterpiece would be more realistic if I had the same amount of digits as it did. I don't know. It was stupid. At the time I thought I was doing it for her."
"But what happened to your statue?"
Carter shrugged. "I never went back to the apartment after that. What does that matter anyway? Catana was dead. The strange thing is that a few weeks later I decided to have Macabo stuffed. He was beginning to smell and I had to do something. When I went to collect him he looked exactly the same as the monkey statue that Catana had made. It took a few years before I could admit to myself that this thing I carried with me wasn't Macabo. So I took him back to Bombay, and buried him near where we had met."
There was a pause and I could see that Carter was upset.
"I'll go." he said, sitting still in his seat. "I've told you enough for now."
I waited for him to move, but he didn't. Eventually I decided to ask one last question.
"Have you enjoyed your life, Carter?"
There was a long pause before he spoke. He didn't answer the question, but I think he nodded.
"I sometimes imagine what heaven's like. I think we'll all be together. Me, Macabo, Catana, and the sea creatures, all happy, feeling safe as we listen to my mother, the great Montessa, sing us a lullaby in her deep baritone voice."