Read Museums and Women Online

Authors: John Updike

Museums and Women (22 page)

He looked at me sharply; there was not much amiability in his face. Though his skin was as fair as mine, there was something taut and flattened underlying his fine features. “Do you believe in it?”

“I don’t know. Part of it, I suppose.”

“Which of it?”

I began to blush. I realized that in a primitive by-way of my being I had “revered” my slight friend and had regarded him, for all the times I had victimized his backhand, with what used to be called “superstitious awe”; so that I felt unworthy and embarrassed in the face of his questioning.

He insisted, “Do you believe in personal immortality?”

I assumed that, being a god, he was certainly pious. I said, “Why not? It can’t be disproved.”

“I can’t see it,” Gish said.

Though the remark seemed addressed, calmly, more to himself than to me, my heart sank, and kept sinking, through the depths of this somehow authoritative denial.

“But it’s not supposed to be
seen
,” I pleaded. “It must be be
lieved
. Belief is the option we’ve been given.”

He shook his head, regretfully, inexorably. His voice was small and high-pitched, yet his enunciation was firm. “I agree with Marx,” he said. “It’s a hoax. It’s a method whereby the powerful keep the ignorant from rebelling.”

I was shocked; the ground lurched under me. Not until then—could it be?—did I realize by how much some of my classmates were older in spirit than I. Out of the blankness of my fright arose the sword-thin laugh of this other, and his voice saying to me, “Do you want to hear a Kafir legend? This is how the belly of the ibex became white. When God made the Great Flood, when you say Noah built his ark, the ibex ran into the mountains. The waters kept rising, and the ibex went from mountain to mountain, until at last he came to the highest of all, to Tirich Mir, and there he stood, waiting. The water rose to his feet, to his knees, to his belly; and then it subsided.” Gish showed me, with slender hands and wrists flat like female wrists, the soft motion of the subsiding. “And that,” he said, “is why the belly of the ibex is white. That is why you think you believe. The waters have not yet closed over you.” His voice was gentle and bitter and the light in his gray eyes was, yes, gay.

Though the class report, for all its crimson bulk, has nothing in it but a Kabul forwarding address, the newspapers have printed a little about Gish’s postgraduate career. Becoming king (if that is what it is) upon his father’s violent death, the fourth Gish Imra has reversed all liberal trends in the Shīgar state. Contact with the south and the Kabul administration has dwindled; radios were destroyed by tribal decree; strangers venture into the region at their own risk and may expect to be robbed. Certain brutal aspects of the cult of worship, which had fallen into disuse, have been revived, in the name of cultural autonomy. My friend, seeking a policy, “can’t see” the reign of his unhappy father and looks toward his grandfather, who left the mountains amid two thousand bodyguards, and even beyond, toward his great-grandfather, the inexorable sun.

Under the Microscope

I
T WAS NOT HIS KIND OF POND
; the water tasted slightly acid. He was a cyclops, the commonest of copepods, and this crowd seemed exotically cladoceran—stylish water-fleas with transparent carapaces, all shimmer and bubbles and twitch. His hostess, a magnificent daphnia fully an eighth of an inch tall, her heart and cephalic ganglion visibly pulsing, welcomed him with a lavish gesture of her ciliate, branching antennae; for a moment he feared she would eat him. Instead she offered him a platter of living desmids. They were bright green in color and shaped like crescents, hourglasses, omens. “Who do you know here?” Her voice was a distinct constant above the din. “Everybody knows
you
, of course. They’ve read your books.” His books, taken all together, with generous margins, would easily have fitted on the period that ends this sentence.

(illustration credit 20.1)

(illustration credit 20.2)

The cyclops modestly grimaced, answered “No one,” and turned to a young specimen of water mite, probably
Hydrachna geographica
, still bearing ruddy traces of the larval stage. “Have you been here long?” he asked, meaning less the party than the pond.

(illustration credit 20.3)

“Long enough.” Her answer came as swiftly as a reflex. “I go back to the surface now and then; we breathe air, you know.”

“Oh, I know. I envy you.” He noticed she had only six legs. She was newly hatched, then. Between her eyes, arranged in two pairs, he counted a fifth, in the middle, and wondered if in her he might find his own central single optic amplified and confirmed. His antennules yearned to touch her red spots; he wanted to ask her,
What do you see?
Young as she was, partially formed, she appeared, alerted by his abrupt confession of envy, ready to respond to any question, however presuming.

But at that moment a monstrous fairy shrimp, nearly an inch in length and extravagantly tinted blue, green, and bronze, swam by on its back, and the water shuddered. Furious, the cyclops asked the water mite, “Who invites
them?
They’re not even in our scale.”

(illustration credit 20.4)

She shrugged permissively, showing that indeed she had been here, in this tainted pond, long enough. “They’re entomostracans,” she said, “just like Daphnia. They amuse her.”

“They’re going to eat her up,” the cyclops predicted.

Though she laughed, her fifth eye gazed steadily into his wide lone one. “But isn’t that what we all want? Subconsciously, of course.”

“Of course.”

An elegant, melancholy flatworm was passing hors d’oeuvres. The cyclops took some diatoms, cracked their delicate shells of silica, and ate them. They tasted golden brown. Growing hungrier, he pushed through to the serving table and had a vol-vox in algae dip. A shrill little rotifer, his head cilia whirling, his three-toothed mastax chattering, leaped up before him, saying, with the mixture of put-on and pleading characteristic of this environment, “I wead all your wunnaful books, and I have a wittle bag of pomes I wote myself, and I would wove it,
wove
it if you would wead them and wecommend them to a big bad pubwisher!” At a loss for a civil answer, the cyclops considered the rotifer silently, then ate him. He tasted slightly acid.

(illustration credit 20.5)

(illustration credit 20.6)

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