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Joshua Malbin

307 12th St. Apt. 8

Brooklyn NY 11215


This story begins late in the history of human evolution, when already apes had lost most of

the thick hair on their legs and arms, on their backs and necks and bellies. Too many biting and

burrowing insects had evolved to live in that fur—so many that the number of them an ape

carried could mean the difference between sickness and health.

The loss of habitat was hard on those bugs, so the King of Parasites went up to God—

scuttled up to God, actually—and asked for an audience.

"God," he said, waving his two front legs, his voice whistling through his proboscis, "my

people are starving. They have nowhere to hide during the day, they have nowhere to lay their

children. My only prosperous subjects are the biting flies and pubic lice. Help us."

It's out of my hands, God said. What should I do, put the hair back? Things evolve the way

they evolve; My natural laws are My laws. Besides, God added, change is coming. Trust me.

I'm hardly ever wrong.

Alfred and Beth were the nakedest apes in two neighboring bands. The little hair they had

Joshua Malbin
307 12th St. Apt. 8
Brooklyn NY 11215

clung to their skin in tight little pills a half-inch apart. For unrelated reasons, hominids had by

this time also come to walk upright, and grown intelligent and social. Their thumbs worked, they

had some crude tools, and while they could not yet speak a regular language, their larynxes were

softening in that direction. Where their ape cousins had only managed sounds related to

establishing dominance or territory, crying an alarm, or keeping contact with the foraging-group,

Alfred and Beth's clans had sounds for mothers to make to their babies and for mates to make at

the edge of sleep, something between a hum and a mutter. They had, in other words, a kind of

sung vocabulary of tenderness.

When Alfred reached puberty the adult males in his band drove him out, and he had to go

alone across the veldt. Usually a teenaged male was solitary for many years or at best formed a

roving gang with a few others like him, but Alfred got lucky. Not long after leaving his home he

found Beth by the river, where she'd gone by herself to drink. He hummed to her and stroked her

smooth back. She looked at his naked young body and thought about the shaggy old males in her

band, those males whose every sound was harsh and guttural like a command. What he was

doing with his hand and voice made her feel good, and she was not accustomed to feeling good.

The savannah was wide and endless, and they had the river to guide them. She turned away from

her family and together they went up its bank.

They walked for weeks. They had to put some distance between themselves and Beth's

home range, or her uncles would find them and force Alfred to give her back. They could make

good time, though, because they didn't have to spend too much of any day foraging. Back then

Joshua Malbin
307 12th St. Apt. 8
Brooklyn NY 11215

the world was still full of easy food: cresses from the river; insects under rocks and logs; lizards

in the crooks of trees, groggy in the cold of dawn. Neither of them had mated but they'd both

seen it done, and they stopped often to try it, with steadily improving results.

Alfred and Beth followed the river up through the folds of a range of hills. Eventually they

came to a place where the river was braided from three streams, and they turned away from the

water, crossed the next ridgeline, and descended far more than they'd climbed, into a dense

forest. It was hotter here than on the veldt, and wet. There were fruits in the trees and grubs by

the fat handful, and they made a nest of moss and leaves under some bushes and stayed.

Years passed. They were blissfully alone. Beth learned how to touch Alfred's naked skin so

that fire ran down his spine and his forearms prickled, and he learned to do the same to her.

Usually at their age apes started collecting their first ailments—rotten or broken teeth, wrenched

joints that never healed, goiter, rickets, or scurvy—but somehow the food here kept their gums

firm and pink and their organs in working order. They were even moving closer to language, as

their tender-sounds grew more and more supple and nuanced through constant use.

First they learned to repeat the same notes for "yes," "no," and "more of that you're doing

right there." Then they began to associate more complex melodies with particular situations and

emotions: one song for waking and another for falling asleep curled together, a conciliatory song

for ending fights and a petulant one for starting them. Only after a long time did they get into the

habit of using the same songs for common foods and dangers.

Joshua Malbin
307 12th St. Apt. 8
Brooklyn NY 11215

Since they'd learned their songs from love, everything they named was tinged with feeling.

When Alfred offered Beth pounded manioc mush, he made a slightly different sound than she did

in acknowledging his gift, because his was the warmth of offering and hers the warmth of

gratitude. Or when Beth called down from the safety of a tree to warn Alfred of an approaching

warthog, her worried sound was different from the panicked one he made scrambling up the

nearest trunk. But because he made the same worried sound when it was time to warn her of a

warthog, and she made the same panicked one, they knew they were transparent to one another.

Alfred was sure Beth understood him to the core, and that he understood her, and she was sure of

the same.

Time passes quickly in God's eye, but it passed very slowly for the King of Parasites. A year

was the span of several lifetimes for his people. So when he went back to God to apply again for

help, by his reckoning he had waited ages, while to God it seemed he had only just left.

Look, God said, you're just in time to see—I told you change was coming.

One day Alfred and Beth were wandering through the forest and looking for food (as they

did for much of every day, never devoting great attention to the task but never passing up a meal

when they found it), and they happened on the corpse of a python. It was a young one, not more

than four feet long, and some big cat had clawed it half to pieces, so recently that blood still ran

from the ten or more wounds in its glossy yellow hide.

Joshua Malbin
307 12th St. Apt. 8
Brooklyn NY 11215

They weren't above eating carrion, especially carrion this fresh, so they lifted the snake

together—it was much heavier than it looked—and carried it to a rock they knew, a twenty-foot

exposed granite slope where they could eat and not be ambushed if that cat decided to fight for its

meal. Beth used a sharp rock to work free bits of meat, sharing them with Alfred. Since they'd

never eaten python before they didn't have a habitual sound for it, but they'd gotten used to

making noises to each other nearly all the time, and especially when they ate. It was their way of

knowing they shared the same experience: they echoed each other, filling the reflected sound

with emotion. So with Python they crooned a new song back and forth between bites, something

based on the sounds for eating and for snake-far-off-in-the-trees.

It was rare for them to see two in a month, but only a few days later they spotted another

python, this one hanging on a tree limb, waiting for prey. Beth's mouth flooded with the

remembered taste of its meat, and she snatched a rock and scampered up the trunk one-handed,

gleefully singing their new song for happy-to-eat-Python. Alfred, horrified, began screaming the

sound for scared-of-Python-since-I-saw-it-strangling-a-small-deer. Beth froze in a crook of the

tree and stared down at him.

And suddenly Alfred saw that even though they'd earlier shared that song for happy-to-eat-

python, Beth's happiness in that moment must have been different from his. He was scared of

Python, and his happiness had been the happiness of eating his fear. Beth, clearly unafraid, could

not have felt the same. Yet she'd made the same noises as him.

Joshua Malbin
307 12th St. Apt. 8
Brooklyn NY 11215

All the rest of that day, that week, he worried about it. Maybe every sound he and Beth

shared meant something a little different to her. Maybe she didn't even feel the same way about

him in general as he did about her. He had no abstract concept of Love, but he knew how

comforted he was to be near her, and how a certain kind of touch from her had come to be like a

tug on the wire through him, how he worried in her absence and slept better in her warmth.

Some of that was true for her, too, he still believed it, but maybe some of it wasn't, and he had no

way of knowing whether the things they did not share included the things that counted most.

Beth had a crisis too, paused in the tree, looking down at her lover, but it was a crisis of a

slightly different shape. Alfred's song was highly detailed, and he was agitated and insistent, but

although she could recognize that his song was about the python, she couldn't figure out exactly

what he meant. For the first time she didn't know what he was feeling.

Or perhaps it wasn't the first time. Once Alfred had shown he could be opaque, she began to

doubt all the earlier times when she'd been so sure he was transparent. Then she began to wonder

whether she'd been opaque herself. She remembered, for instance, the times she'd brought some

eggs to Alfred and made the sound for happy-to-offer-my-lover-some-eggs, even though she'd

been feeling other things at that same moment, things she had not vocalized. That she wanted an

egg to herself. More importantly that she only gave him eggs so he'd be full when she brought

out the berries. If he had thought he understood her, he'd been wrong; there had been things

Joshua Malbin
307 12th St. Apt. 8
Brooklyn NY 11215

about her he couldn't have known. And maybe at that same time, she reasoned, Alfred had been

using the sounds for happy-to-receive-eggs-from-my-lover when there had been something quite

different in his heart.

They stopped singing for a long time, during which they were physically close to each other

but terribly lonely. When they did begin again it was slow, and painful. Now they had to build a

true language, and no ape had ever tried such a thing before. In order to leach the emotion from

their songs—for instance, in order for Beth to have the same word to use when she gave Alfred

an apple as he had receiving it—they had to turn their songs into hard, unmusical syllables. It

worked well enough for things like apples and Pythons. It was easy to point at those and agree

on a word. But then they were left with all the things they'd taken out—emotions, reactions, and

bits of the heart that even today have no name. Things at which they could not point.

Alfred tried to solve the problem by always using the same set of syllables when he felt a

certain way; Beth first approached things from the other end, using Alfred's new sounds when

she thought they were appropriate, along with a questioning tone, looking to him for

confirmation. After a little while each adopted the other's technique and they worked toward a

common center.

But they could only come so near. When Alfred used a word to capture some emotion, he

knew that what he was feeling just then was not precisely the same as what he'd felt the last time

he'd used that same word, just as that earlier time had been different from the time before it, and

Joshua Malbin
307 12th St. Apt. 8
Brooklyn NY 11215

so on. Every moment was a blend of feelings, never the same twice, and he could only ever

name the most dominant, always with the same few combinations of syllables.

For her part, Beth understood that when she tested a word and Alfred confirmed it, she could

do no better than hope that of the many things they both felt then, she and he agreed on which

one was the most important, the one to be named.

It was a small but unbridgeable gap, one that grew simultaneously smaller and more

infuriating the longer they worked at it.

Alfred remembered this: One morning, not long after they'd come to the forest, Beth had

risen before him and gone down to the stream to drink. When he awoke he went after her and

saw her squatting on her heels, her arms propped on her knees, her head bent between them. Not

three feet from her a drab little brown bird hopped back and forth, silent on the moss, and she

watched it beneath the crook of her arm. He felt twice his own size then and perfectly helpless,

and all of it—the sun cutting through the canopy, the bird, her curved back—was simple, and he

was connected to it directly. It filled him.

But now when he caught her looking at something he had to ask why she liked it, what she

saw. She would tell him, "That rock is pretty," or, "See the shadows in the bushes," or, "I was

remembering when we found a deer beneath that tree," and he would nod, because he knew there

was no more than that to tell. But he also knew there was a lot more that couldn't be told,

because what she said never made him feel the way he had that morning at the stream.

Joshua Malbin
307 12th St. Apt. 8
Brooklyn NY 11215

Beth remembered this: One morning she woke up first and went down to the stream to drink.

She sat on her heels there and watched a bird, and after a little while she became aware that

Alfred was standing behind her. She knew that he saw her the way she'd want to be seen, and

that he saw what she was looking at, just as if they shared eyes. Because she hadn't heard him

come and so didn't know exactly where he was behind her, he filled the half of the world back

there and made her a part of it; and because she could see everything in front of her just as he did

they shared that half too.

Now when she tried to explain to him what she saw, she knew he didn't fully understand.

The mere fact that she had to tell him meant he didn't see what she did.

When they'd met on the savannah and walked off together, wordlessly, they had been in such

perfect agreement that they hadn't even known there was a decision to be made. Now they could

only reach agreement. They had to make decisions by talking, at length—until at last they

decided they needed some corner of their lives free of talk. Specifically, they could no longer

bear facing that impossible gap when it came to the question of being desired. Alfred needed to

know, unequivocally, that Beth wanted him, and Beth needed to know the same of Alfred. So

they invented a new, simple, binary system: they would keep their genitals covered with leaves

when they did not want to mate, and would throw the leaves away when they did. It didn't satisfy

either of them, but it was truly the best they could think of.

Joshua Malbin
307 12th St. Apt. 8
Brooklyn NY 11215

Unfortunately, as in so many of the most important cases the best they could think of turned

out to be awful. We all know what happened next. Humanity kept the leaves, but it also kept the

small, awful gap. Over years the leaves became cloth, and a whole new language developed in

its folds, so that the question of wanting and being wanted became more fraught then ever.

You see? God said to the King of Parasites then, and the King winked his compound eyes

and went to gather his nation. Together they invaded every wrinkle and fiber of their new homes,

again tormenting the humans who bore them and who never imagined that living without fleas

was part of the paradise they'd lost.


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