The JRB is pleased to present an excerpt from Animalia Paradoxa, the new collection of short stories by The JRB Contributing Editor Henrietta Rose-Innes.
Boiler House Press, 2019
It took only three days to find him, this time. Turned out he was very close, just across the road from her house and up in the air, painting a white wall blue. When she saw him, her heart did all the things a heart must do: it swelled, it leapt, it skipped a beat. She crossed without looking left or right and stopped directly under the ladder—because, of course, it had already happened to them both. The terrible luck.
She gripped a rung and looked up between his legs. A drop of paint spun from his roller to land on her cheek. She didn’t flinch. From this angle, his throat and upturned chin seemed not quite human, the soft underjaw of a frog or a fish. She shook the ladder lightly, made him look.
for we are two stars falling in the night sky
It wasn’t that he was her type, particularly. No one was her type, until all at once they were. Rough or smooth, hard or soft, dark or light—what did it matter? Certainly, he was the loveliest man in the world (again, again and always). Such fingernails, such knees and ears, and that taut crescent of belly visible under the hang of his paint-flecked T-shirt. Whatever type he was, it was the one, the only, every time; the only one for her was here, was him.
She said hello.
The man came down the ladder in a clatter of boots and knuckles. ‘Alright, love?’
‘I’m crazy about you,’ she said. ‘I’ve been thinking about you for days.’ When she touched his face, he flinched.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Sorry about this.’
They kissed: a sweet preliminary, not deep. This was the best part, the last pure moment. For these few lush beats, the fever stilled.
His skin against her palm was cool, like something vital had already left.
before thy beauty kingdoms tremble
Three days earlier, she’d woken up sick. Ah crap, she thought, not now. But it was undeniable. She could feel the condition rising to the surface, scuttling up the nerve fibres, claw over claw. It announced itself in all the usual ways: the night before she’d been restless, weepy; this morning there was an ache in her womb and her breasts were tender. Painfully sharp senses bullied her out of bed, eyes watering in the sun-flare, the pillow rough against her cheek. Her body felt icy—T-shirt soaked with sweat—but her face was fever-hot. She could smell the grass from outside, and the neighbour’s coffee.
Oh, and the sounds. Someone was playing music in the flat upstairs, a love song of course, Oh baby, and there she was, tearing up like a moron.
When she called in sick, her boss at the PR company was sympathetic. She was a model employee—unruffled, dependable—despite these occasional bouts of illness. ‘My girl, you need to start looking after yourself,’ he told her. ‘We’re none of us as young as were.’
The symptoms advanced predictably. Her head grew light and her heart weighty, waterlogged; but it also seemed too strong, wanting to jump from her chest. Nausea, as rich compounds rinsed through her blood. Grimly, she noted she was low on supplies. Vitamins. Paracetamol. Condoms.
The first spasm hit while she was waiting in line at the chemist. A wrench in the groin, fuck. The man in the queue in front of her half-turned and gave her a look of quickened but impersonal interest: some pheromonal tendril tickling his back-brain. She managed to return a cool glance.
She felt malnourished, missing an essential mineral. The smell of the sweets at the till filled her mouth with saliva, but the thought of eating was sickening. Her reflection in a mirrored pillar was a vision of hunger. Lips full and parted, mouth a ripe fruit split to show its seeds.
There was an ad for blood-pressure meds on the wall, with a middle-aged couple in each other’s arms; she had to look away. And Christ, the music. It was everywhere, piped through the walls. Songs of yearning. Songs of losing and finding. She tried not to listen, but the lyrics kept tripping her up: blunt lurches of the heart.
This part might go on for a week—two weeks, if she was unlucky. She went to bed early each night, but slept no more than a couple of hours. She cried in the dark. Solid food was repulsive, but she drank lots of water and took her vitamins. It was important to conserve energy, but also stupid to delay. Best to go all out from the start, while you still have strength. By day ten she’d be ravening. Weeping in public at the first dumb notes of the chorus.
Her heart was going at a constant eighty-five beats a minute. She counted.
She hadn’t bothered with doctors for years, but there’d been a time, in the beginning, when she’d tried to get help. Age twenty-one, she’d waited on a hard bench at the women’s health clinic, hands clasped in her lap, between a pregnant lady and a teenager wanting the pill.
What was strange was that her right thumb could feel her left, but not vice versa—the left was rubbery, like something from a joke shop. She stroked it lightly. She was remembering holding hands with her first boyfriend, in high school. Before all this. They’d kissed, and he’d touched her breasts. Perhaps they’d gone further, or it was unclear how far they’d gone. She couldn’t quite recall.
A nurse was calling her name.
The doctor, an overworked gynaecologist, seemed somewhat out of her depth. ‘So, these episodes, these … encounters. They cause you distress?’
‘Look, not all the time. Like now, I’m totally fine. Super calm. Not feeling much of anything.’
‘I see. Perhaps you’re a bit depressed?’
‘Or something else is bothering you.’
‘Well.’ She held out her left thumb. ‘I am literally not feeling, here. It’s been sort of numb for a few weeks now. Since the last time.’
The doctor took her hand. ‘Can you feel this?’
There was pressure, but it was distant, as if through a glove. ‘Mm.’
She closed her eyes while the doctor squeezed other bits and pieces: arms, toes, shoulders. Funny, she couldn’t think of his face, that first boyfriend. What she recalled was the sweetness and simplicity of their exchange. Pleasure for pleasure, touch for touch. Was this how it was for other people, all the time?
The doctor was saying something, but her voice was far away.
‘I said, are you still with us? You were drifting off there.’ The doctor was writing a worried note. ‘I’m sending you to a specialist.’
She came away with a handful of pamphlets: guidance for healthy eating, for handling stress, for safer sex.
my sweet lover comes to me on the perfumed wind
The search. The important thing was to position yourself to survey large numbers of men. It meant a lot of walking around: days and nights pounding the pavement, eyes peeled. She used to go out to the clubs, but with age and experience she’d bothered less with setting. It could happen anywhere, she knew now, any time. Some enchanted evening, sure—but also eight o’clock in the morning in the parking lot behind Liquor City. You had to be prepared. She carried condoms, although often she forgot about them in the moment. It made no real difference—things didn’t work that way—but she did fear pregnancy. It hadn’t happened yet, and perhaps it never could. What space for a child in this body, after all?
Fortunately, the condition gave you stamina, a fevered drive to keep scanning, face after face, body after body. So many variations on the basic phrasing: eyes and mouths, strides and postures. Could you be? Could you be loved? All could, potentially. Surely almost all had been desired, if only once in their lives. But not by her, not today. She was looking for the man she’d been dreaming of, weeping for; his face had not yet been revealed, but soon, soon she would see him in full. And then—then he’d be dreaming too.
She went home, threw up bile, drank a bottle of wine with some painkillers, checked herself in the bathroom mirror. She looked fantastic: flush-cheeked, black-eyed. A woman in the throes.
About the book
A virus inflames a woman with mortal desire; a colonial naturalist seeks an impossible specimen; invisible violence stalks a safari and a man out walking enters into a strange shadow dance with a prizefighter. Ranging from taut human drama to phantasmagoria, these stories make rich and strange connections – between ancient and new, human and animal, Africa and Europe, reality and dream. Taken together, in prose of great precision and beauty, the stories in Animalia Paradoxa map the complexities of the human specimen, in all its troubling glory. This is fiction of the highest quality, from one of South Africa’s foremost novelists.