Through the rectangles, cut into eight small squares by thin strips of metal, we could look right in. We knew it was a kitchen, and it was empty, for now.
What drew us was the brighter light from a door opening on the box that held food. Out of a large bowl something live crept out. It was grayish. It slid down the side of the container, bounced from wire shelf to shelf, hit the bottom of the door frame, and fell soundlessly to the floor. Soundlessly? As far as we could tell. We watched it propel itself in small spasms, like waves, over the floor, toward the hallway.
We couldn’t see any farther, so we floated upward, to see what was doing on the second floor. Night lights in the bathroom and bedroom lit the rooms with dim, shadowy auras. Two people lay on a very large bed. They were not touching. They seemed to sleep. In a while, the gray blob appeared in the door of the bedroom. It made its way in by the same laborious process. It then heaved itself upward and landed on the bed frame, close to the figure we knew to be a woman. It crawled slowly across her body. It attached itself to her face; she began to suffocate and, with a great heave of her own, she tossed her head and twisted her upper body, and the gray matter ended on top of the man’s face. The woman didn’t seem to have awakened, but her face seemed more at rest now. The man sat up in bed and sneezed violently, about ten times, while the gray thing fell to the floor and began moving back toward the stairs, then the kitchen, then as we lowered ourselves to the window with eight partitions to see, to the food box, inside the container. The door closed. What next?
So we stayed to watch, instead of making our usual rounds. The stars were beginning to pale when the woman appeared in the kitchen, made the light brighter, went to the box, took out the bowl with the thing, and pulled off a piece. She then began gathering ingredients for what we knew would be food preparation. We hadn’t seen this one before. It took a long time; it involved a machine, pans for the heat box, and at the base of it the gray thing. Several hours later, we knew we were smelling bread. Several loaves came out of the heat box, looking quite handsome.
The next night, we came back to watch the woman feed the bread to guests. The guests praised it, again and again, the woman gobbling up the praise, wanting ever more. We could see from the windows of the dining room how the guests found a sour undertaste to the bread that spoiled its virtues. And only we knew that the gray thing at the bottom of the bread had soaked up the woman’s, then the man’s, bad dreams.
* * *
In this garden a man talks excitedly to a tiny black box in his hand. He’s chubby, and he laughs as if he’s letting all the air inside him go out at once. He’s laughing into his hand. It’s dusk, and this time we’re behind the tall hedge he has planted and watered and groomed into a beautiful, curved, unnatural line. The man laughs now, but two days ago, when we came close, to take a look as is our wont, it wasn’t so easy for him. He has a large furry bi-color animal that he let out on a wooden platform quite high up. There is a railing surrounding it. Perhaps the beast needed air. Do people live without air in those enclosures they call houses? From inside there were sounds, like the kind made by beasts of the ocean as they seek each other, with more elaborate, lengthier melodies, for there are so few of them left that it takes a long time for the sound to travel through water from one to another. Was the furry animal disturbed by the sounds coming out with such desperate fury? Did he sense us? They do, sometimes, the sensitive ones, staring, and the people say, What? What? There’s nothing there.
Two days ago, the man cried. His cry was very different from his laugh. It seemed to have trouble finding a way out of his round belly; it seemed to claw its way out of his throat. He bent over the bloodied beast, who had leapt over the railing from the wooden platform toward us. He fell with a crunch. His great white teeth bled. His front paw bled. The man rushed from his machine and picked up his beast and rushed it away. They came back, the beast in wrappings where he had bled, limp in the man’s arms. They went inside. We looked through his very clear rectangle. The man wept while the beast fell asleep.
Today he’s here in the garden, the beast inside, the wraps no longer bloody. He’s laughing into his fist. He’s saying, “I’ll never let Bud listen to Tosca again.” He then puts a little box from his hand on a table and pours himself something to drink, something that looks like the dusk.
* * *
Tonight it’s hard to see, even through the clearest. The rain fogs them or streaks them, and tonight, in the high cold wind, they are streaked with the dust and pollen of summer, in this first hard fall rain. First it’s dark, so dark we see practically nothing but small, close red lines, glowing with a design that changes on the minute. Oh, yes, we do have an acute sense of time. Even though we only keep to the other side, we can feel the cold settling in, settled in.
In a while, a light is thrown on, bathing the whole inside in a glare like sheet lightning, and the man standing in the doorway of the room looks struck. He then runs to the chair, where a woman lies in a beautiful, curved, unnatural line. On the floor is a broken glass, liquid spilled in a puddle. On the other side of the chair a small cylinder rolls away from the man, who has kicked it with his foot in his haste to get to the woman. He does not notice it, at first. He picks the woman’s limp hand, touches her face, then falls on his knees. He buries his head in her lap. The rest we have seen before, many times, so let’s move on.
As we go, we can already see and hear the machines with their interrupted beams and bursts of sharp noise, a noise like that coming out of the man when he gets up from the lap now supremely, permanently indifferent to him.
* * *
She’s new to this place. It’s easy to tell. She gets out of the machine as we watch everyone inside draw to attention at the sound of her. She looks around a lot, tugs at her jacket, clutches her leather bag close to her. She’s not used to the wood plank missing on the third step, so she falters yet doesn’t fall. They open the door for her. She walks in, takes out a yellow rectangle and makes fast marks on it as she exchanges words with them. We can tell they speak a different language than hers, for they speak, she stops, repeats the same sounds, once, twice, until they nod and she writes them down. They’re looking at the corners of the room.
As they’re sitting and standing by the kitchen table, where she sits and writes, the older woman living in the house goes to a large bag, takes a handful of round pellets, the kind used to feed large furry beasts, and throws them under the cabinets, under the food box, under the heat box. We can see them, beady eyes, not attractive at all, really, with their long scaly tails and very long, yellow teeth, scurrying out, grabbing at the pellets, shoving each other for them. The woman writing jumps when the other throws her first handful. There’s a lot of talk going on. People do spend a lot of time doing that, we know.
The woman who lives there picks up the littlest child, shows the woman writing the child’s hand, where the first phalanxes of the middle and small fingers are missing. She then uncovers one of the girl’s ankles by pulling down a sock, a little cotton thing with a curly edge. The ankle is angry red and swollen. The woman writing gathers herself up as if afraid of the floor. She quickly stuffs her rectangle into the bag and makes for the door.
The woman pursues her, for the visitor is running by now. But if I don’t feed them, she yells after her, they bite the children.
* * *
Flying ones stop to mate in the trees or on rooftops. The ground ones mate where they can, when they can, in open spaces or under the trees. Some people have two beasts who mate on their floors while the people watch their square electrical boxes or look at papers or eat.
As we look through a large space with floating designs that catch the late-afternoon sun and make colored patterns on the floor inside, we see two young people. They will surely be mating. Their faces are glued to one another by the mouth. Their hands clasp each other’s body as if drowning. It’s not all that attractive, really. They head for the stairs, walking awkwardly with their arms around each other, like trees crowding for light. We float after them, toward the rectangles above. We see them enter a space dark with clutter. They move for the bed like a compass needle finding true north. We are not sufficiently interested to stay. We’ve seen this sort of thing many times. We used to have compassion for the shortness of breath, the redness, the bulging veins. They suffer so. But they’re too stupid to stop.
Instead, we listen to the steps outside, which of course they can’t hear since their own blood must be roaring between their temples. A woman comes out, opens the door with a key, and comes in. She looks around, takes in the two cans of drink, a girl’s shoe at the bottom of the stairs, a belt, the boy’s, farther up. She stands, motionless. Is she listening? She disappears. Of a sudden she’s up here with us, looking in, at the youngsters on the bed, at herself on the stairs, at a little stage that’s just appeared in front of her eyes. On the stage are two floors of a house. In the bed upstairs are two people, entangled as these youngsters are. A woman comes in. She runs upstairs, throws the door open, screams, pulls the girl off the bed by the hair. The boy scrambles off, clothes half on. Now the woman floating with us looks directly at us, as if she can see. She closes the stage as if it’s a box, with her eyes, and she smashes it against the brick wall without moving a finger. She is beginning to frighten us.
Just then she turns around. She does hear the sound of the second machine approaching the house. She’s inside again, runs out. She greets the man coming up to the house violently, arms around his neck, almost choking him. He looks staggered. But not for long. Now they’ve got their mouths glued together, their arms twining around each other so as to throw their gait off balance. She is leading him back to his machine. They get in. They lock mouths again, and she hits—accidentally?—some device that sends out a bleating sound. Then they drive off.
The boy and the girl hear the sound, jump up, throw their clothes hastily on. When the man and the woman return, the girl is gone. The boy sits in a corner all by himself. The man touches his lips to the woman’s cheek and goes up the stairs. The woman says something to the boy, smiling. He gets up, puts his arms around her. He goes up the stairs. The woman, still smiling, wipes her eyes. We have not seen her weep.
I’m fascinated by the concept of the alien, which cuts deeper than what we somewhat glibly call these days otherness because in the root of alien is an otherness that is severed from normal ways of thinking. In French, aliéné means insane, but the verb means to lose one’s natural rights, so it brings in the connotations of loss, of willing and unwitting abandonments, as well as a perspective beyond the ordinary. The observers in Windowcases are Mental Travelers, whom I borrow from Blake’s mythology, and they look in at specimens—ordinary American events—through optics that I hope make our own practices both tenderly foreign to us and terribly familiar.
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