He bought the tickets and descended the marble stairway with his daughter. She was two years old and had to hang from his hand taking each of the big steps. She swung down with her right foot first, then with her left to the same level, over and over, until they reached the basement floor. Now they were underwater. Sharks and sturgeon and stingrays and carp and pike freeze-framed behind diorama glass. Something like sunlight flickered down through dark waves. They moved between the cases, still holding hands, and came to a beach, among seabirds and shore animals. They followed an estuary and river, crossed plains and woodland and ascended high into mountains inhabited by bear and goat and wild boar. Winter came, snow fell. A stag struggled against a pack of starving wolves. One wolf was on top of the stag, fangs locked on its shoulder. Another had fallen and was in mid-roll on its back in the snow. The stag tossed its giant antlers, with failing strength.
They moved across each continent, through prairie and desert and rainforest.
They came to a cave. At the entrance to the cave she stretched her arms towards him and he scooped her up and carried her in. Hidden speakers played an echoing soundtrack of drips and the squeaking of bats. They gripped each-other in the dimness, faces together, and he crept through the dark winding passage, past stalactites and stalagmites, through the danger.
They exited the cave and he set her down. They were in the arctic. Two adult polar bears and a cub stood on a rocky shore. Icebergs drifted in the background. She pointed at each animal in turn:
That’s you. That’s Mami. That’s me.
They ascended a wide stairway, holding hands, to the middle level of the building. They saw skeletons of elephants and whales, then rocks and crystals of every colour pulled from the earth’s depths, and garish cross-section models of the contents of a human cell, and giant pastel ladders of DNA that spiralled to the ceiling. A little further on, the Earth and Mars and Jupiter and Saturn and the moon and stars were projected onto the dome above their heads, and the birth of suns and black holes and the Big Bang was explained. They climbed a stairway to the upper level and life appeared on Earth. He picked up the little girl so she could put her hand in the mouth of a giant reptile. Then they crossed a gangway over an excavation where the bones of mastodon and mammoth and giant armadillo poked from the sandy ground. From that to lepidoptera of all sizes and shapes, papery wings spread and pinned, and their larvae and chrysalises. For a drum-roll finale, the beasts of the African savannah.
Then they were outside under the blue sky, in a city, with big roads to cross to get to the metro station. The world had stood still for them in the museum, but now it moved faster than ever.
Each time they went to the museum, she noticed new things and asked new questions. He lived it through her. But he was also outside it, prepared for accidents and delays. He carried a bag containing a snack, a small bottle of water, wet-wipes and some spare clothes. He knew when she had last eaten and what, and when she had last been to the toilet. His eye was always on the clock.
She sat on his knee on the metro home.
They emerged from the station beside the mall into the bright light of the middle of the day. He carried her on his shoulders. They went around the mall, along the main boulevard, and then through a gap between the cliff-face of apartment blocks and into their own street. It was an unbroken row of unpainted concrete buildings. The footpath one side of the street was entirely blocked with parked cars. The other side was free and lined with chestnut trees in full leaf. The sunlight through the leaves made them glow a mad lime-green. He stopped to let her pluck a leaf. She didn’t have the strength, so he wrenched a bunch high on its stem and gave it to her. She carried the stem in her fist, the five big leaves spread like a fan before his face. He peeked out through the gaps.
Their journeys were always strewn with leaves, sticks, stones and flowers to be investigated and collected. She drew his gaze down into the detail and texture and colour of small things. They would discover a colony of ants and stoop to follow the line where it ascended a tree trunk or crossed a footpath and disappeared into a crack in the concrete. She registered birds and dogs and cats and an entire universe of living things that he would otherwise be deaf and blind to.
She saw monkeys too. There was an hour at dusk when she grew sleepy, before he put her to bed, when she stretched her arms upwards to him and he picked her up—such a little creature, so light and made to be held—and carried her down the stairs of the apartment block and outside into the prosaic streets of their concrete neighbourhood. They would go where the giant chestnuts grew and gaze upwards with craned necks at the lacing of black branches against the milky sky, looking for the monkeys that revealed themselves only at dusk. He would ask her to be very quiet and, their cheeks pressed together, he would point and whisper, Look!
And sometimes she could see them.
He opened the apartment door and stepped into the main room, which was kitchen and living room combined. The woman walked past him, towards the child’s room. She saw him but did not speak. The little girl ran to join her. The apartment was dirty. He started to tidy and to clean. The woman was speaking to the girl in the adjoining room and he knew from her voice that something was not right. He had hoped that taking the child out of the apartment on a Saturday morning would allow her to rest and that she would be cheerful when they returned. Now he had the choice between asking her what was wrong or waiting in the hope that it would pass. It was hard to know which option would create less trouble. He opened the fridge to see what he could get the child for lunch and inside the fridge was filthy. He had put it off too long. He decided not to risk cleaning it while she was there. She would interpret it as a reproach. He would wait until she was out of the apartment. He took some eggs from the fridge to scramble. He opened a cupboard and got a bowl. The bowl made a sound as he placed it on the counter surface. He began cracking the eggs into the bowl.
An hour later, the eggs were still in the bowl, beaten, and she had left and taken the kid. While he had been out at the museum, she had opened a journal where he sometimes jotted stray thoughts and she had not liked them.
Indeed, he had written something. He had been in a hotel room on a bright day in early summer, some weeks before, in a provincial city, a Habsburg town of wide boulevards and leafy squares, with a park beside a broad river. Their room at the back of the big modern hotel had a view over the river and the park, and the linden trees were blooming. The kid had been left with the woman’s parents, and they were alone together in a spacious room with a big bed with white sheets, and the green natural world was right outside the window. The far bank of the broad river was verdant too, and above the sky was blue. They had walked together through the town, down neglected sidestreets where the neoclassical façades crumbled, only minutes from the main boulevard along which ran old-fashioned trams with tinkling bells. They looked up at those windows and wondered at the grand rooms and airy ceilings. Later, when he had an hour of solitude, he opened his journal. He seldom wrote, from lack of time, but in the bright hours of that vast peaceful day he sat at the hotel-room desk and wrote about how only weeks before he had been afraid to take that trip with her to the provincial town. It had been a period when they had fought bitterly, and the exhaustion of it made him want to be alone. He wanted rest from the fighting. As it turned out, they did not fight on their trip and they were happy there together, and this was what he was thinking when he confessed his earlier misgivings to the empty pages.
What she understood from what she read was that he had not wanted her there. He tried to explain but the fight wore on and in the end the things he said made it worse and then she left.
He cooked the eggs and ate them. He wandered into the girl’s room. The fan of chestnut leaves was on the parquet floor, wilted from the heat.
Hours passed. He dialled her number. She was at her sister’s. She did not want to talk. Her parents were driving in from just outside the city to take the child away to their place.
Well now, he said, trying to keep his voice level and reasonable, she can stay with me in our own home. My child can stay with me. She doesn’t have be sent away, out of the city. She told him coldly the arrangements had been made. He replied, careful to keep the fear from his voice, that they could be unmade. That conversation ended. Next he tried to call the grandparents but they did not answer. Phone to his ear, he visualised them tight-lipped and driving towards the city, the wheels of their vehicle spinning over the hot asphalt, seeing his number and letting it ring out. He tried calling them a second time, in vain. She had called ahead to warn them.
It was happening now, what he feared most. She was showing him how it would go for him. The features of the life he would inhabit were assuming shape. Like chess, down to a degrading scatter of pieces, playing a blocking game.
Was she so blinded that she could not know what she was doing? She was using the child. He was not sure this was something he would be able to forgive. He understood how men in such situations were capable of doing terrible, irrational things. He observed the desperation rising in himself. But now he needed to think more clearly and coldly than he had thought before. He hushed the violence. He whispered to it and caressed it like you would a cat to gain its trust then he gripped the loose skin of the nape and removed it squirming from the room. No, nothing unpleasant was going to happen.
The hours dragged in the childless apartment. Towards evening, as the sun dipped low, he took the short walk to his usual bar. It was a good bar. He could sit there at the counter and not talk to anybody and the girl behind the bar saw when his glass was empty. It was a place where he could think about things, looking at the wealth of coloured bottles in rows against the wall, the photographs and postcards and coloured banknotes. There were piles of books too, for decoration.
While he was thinking and looking at the bottles the bar filled up. People moved about, shouting and laughing, and the music got much louder. He ordered something small and drank it and then he felt like he was floating. He was suspicious for a moment of this sudden sense of being above the world, anaesthetised, then he just went with it. Elvis entered the building, followed by a Mexican outlaw with bandoliers and a beautiful girl in buckskins who was maybe Pocahontas. They moved to the back of the bar.
He turned to face the bottles again, and to think things through. The kid, when it was quiet, could hear and see things neither of her parents could. He lived through her. He remembered when she was smaller, sitting on her plastic high chair, him trying to get puréed food into her mouth without her making a mess or rubbing it in her hair—perhaps feeling that it was a task for someone who had slept or who did not have something more worthy to do—and how she sat up straight and said one of her first words. Wuff! Wuff! And then he would hear what she had heard and what he had been unable to register—a dog barking, two streets away, audible on a quiet Sunday when the machinery of the city had died down. How many other things was she hearing and seeing and smelling and tasting and finding extraordinary that he had become insensible to? Well, pretty much everything. It had something to do with time, he supposed, and reason, and planning. To achieve the objectives he had set himself—with this home, this situation with the woman, the need to care for the child and earn money so that their life in the city did not hopelessly unravel—his eyes saw beyond the horizon, towards something unreal.
Pocahontas appeared beside him, a long tanned arm extended, her hand on the bar. The long rope of her braid swayed. Her profile was very noble. He tried not to stare at the side of her face. He knew she forbade trivial conversation. She took the drinks and returned to Pancho Villa and The King.
Yes, he thought, contemplating the noble glowing rows of bottles, the real world was very far away and his senses were perverted. His ears were attuned to other sounds; the sounds of things being on course or about to spin off the rails. The sound of a dog barking on a clear quiet day did not penetrate it.
Elvis was standing beside him, indicating the free barstool. He wore a white sequinned jumpsuit with a giant collar and a jewel-studded belt and purple-tinted sunglasses. He nodded to Elvis and Elvis sat down.
JB and Coke, said Elvis.
He observed Elvis receive his drink and noted that at the back of the bar Pancho and Pocahontas were becoming amorous. Elvis shrugged and took a pull at his tall glass.
Elvis had been the most beautiful man on Earth. Dreaming his own dream like Adam in the Garden, a King stumbling towards his Queen, a song upon his tongue, to make his kingdom complete.
She had taken the child and reduced the game to its barest elements and he hated her for that. But he would stay with the woman. He would be stronger than her, more silent, more restrained. He would be a piece of stone. Whatever she rained on his shoulders would wash off him. Then he heard his own voice, after he had spoken:
What happened back there? You were doing fine for a time.
Yessir. One year I was chosen one of the ten outstanding young men in America. It was a real honour for me. I was very proud.
Three movies a year. The actresses?
Not all the songs were good. I had to gear down to situations.
You were a hound dog, Elvis Aaron.
He told Elvis his thoughts. He told him the little girl was hearing things, seeing things and touching the world for the very first time. And above her floated the voices of the parents—only intonations for now, that later would grow clear—dividing the realm. Sometimes Elvis nodded. Neither of them spoke for a time, then he said:
You’re there, Elvis. You’re in Vegas now. This is it.
For a moment Elvis seemed not to have heard, or was trying to remember something.
She’s not going to take my kid, he told Elvis, decisively. She might as well try and kill me.
Sir, you’re already dead, said Elvis, looking straight ahead, holding on to the bar with two hands and easing himself off the stool. You don’t live in Graceland now. You’re faking it.
The King was looking around as though waking and realising he was in the wrong place. He got out some money to pay the bar-girl, but grew confused by the different pieces of paper. He let her take what she needed.
Thank you. Thank you very much, said Elvis.
He lurched towards the door.