Sunday, January 11, 2015

Fiction #57: Thomas Wharton

Valerie Bug

One morning, after a night of primitive neural activity that vaguely resembled dreams, an insect woke to discover that it had been transformed into a woman named Valerie.

She had been lying on her back and now she sat up suddenly, and this was new and surprising to her, being able to sit up. If she’d been lying like this as an insect, on her hard carapace, she’d have had a difficult time righting herself.

This is good, Valerie said to herself with her new vocal cords. I like being able to sit up.

The morning sun was trumpeting through the open blinds and the light stabbed at her sensitive new eyes. Her first impulse was to scuttle into a dark corner.

You don’t have to do that now, she told herself. That’s all over with.

She got up and walked carefully on her new legs into her kitchen. She was ravenous, but there was next to nothing in the fridge. She’d have to do some shopping.

As she stepped out the door of her apartment she froze. The hallway was so terribly bright. Strips of cold white light down the long ceiling, like accusations, with no place to hide.

I belong here, she reminded herself. I can go where I please.

At the front door of her building she was confronted with an even more daunting hurdle: the street.

People go outside, she told herself. They have every right to do so.

Before she could force herself through the doorway she saw someone coming up the walk: an old man carrying a bag of groceries. Valerie stepped back, trying to fit into the narrow space between the full-length window and the mailboxes. She discovered she didn’t fit there.

The old man came through the door and smiled at her as he hobbled past, a warm, kind smile she hadn’t been expecting. He started up the stairs, grunting and puffing as he went. Valerie watched him until he was out of sight around the first turn in the stairs.

Then she went outside.

She hurried along the sidewalk, keeping her head down most of the time, but glancing now and then at people who passed her, waiting for the look of disgust, the shriek, the swish of a newspaper. When she caught their eyes people stared back at her with something like wonder in their eyes. Most of them smiled, too, especially the men.

People smile at each other, Valerie reminded herself. So she started smiling back.

The bright, noisy supermarket got on her nerves but she smiled at everyone and everyone smiled at her and it turned out all right. On the way home, though, she was overcome once more by all this light with no place to hide. She looked around in a panic and then ducked into a coffee shop. It wasn’t well-lit inside and there were no other customers. Valerie relaxed, just a little, despite the jangly pop music.

She approached the middle-aged woman at the counter and ordered a coffee with cream and sugar, and a cinnamon bun.

I’ll bring em to you honey, the woman said.

Valerie found a table in the corner furthest from the window, set down her shopping bags, and tried to read the novel she’d brought in her purse. It was a big fat bestseller, poignant and compelling, as the back cover promised, but something about what she was reading bothered and distracted her from the story. She tried to think about what it was. Then she knew.

It’s nothing but people, Valerie whispered.

She shut the book and waited, tapping her fingernails on the glass tabletop.

There was a loud crash and Valerie jumped.

Sorry, the woman said from behind the counter. Butterfingers this morning.

Valerie forced a smile.

The woman brought over the coffee and bun.

You okay hon? the woman asked.

Oh yes, Valerie said, still smiling. But ... could you turn down that music, please?

Sure, the woman said. If my boss was here he’d make me keep it loud. But he’s not here today. Too bad for him because he’s missing a treat.

A treat?

You, I mean, honey. You’re gorgeous, the woman said. Are you a model?

Valerie looked at the woman without understanding. The woman laughed.

Hasn’t anyone ever told you what a knock-out you are? the woman asked, wide-eyed. Oh my Lord, girl, if only I had your cheekbones. And lips. And pretty much everything else.

Thank you, Valerie said.

The woman sighed.

Life’s not flipping fair, she said, and went back to her counter.

Valerie sipped the coffee and nibbled at the bun. The sweetness soothed her. She could see her face in a mirror tile on the wall and she took quick glances at it from time to time. Lips, cheekbones. Eyebrows. Eyes. She thought that all of these parts in and of themselves might be nice to look at, but she couldn’t make them all come together into a face. At least not a face that said to her, This is you.

The door chimed. Three people came in, talking and laughing with each other.

Valerie took a last sip of the coffee and hurried to the door.

Bye gorgeous, the woman called.

*

It was the same everywhere. People stared and smiled at Valerie wherever she went. Many of them told her how pretty she was, and had she ever thought about modeling? A few women shot her looks of cold hostility and despair, which made her sad for them. Men started conversations with her on park benches, at bus stops, in grocery aisles. They held doors open for her. They took her picture with their phone cameras, usually without asking. They came right out and asked her to sleep with them.

She slept with some of them and enjoyed it. Nothing in what she could remember of her insect life had ever come close to this.

Every morning she got up and looked in the mirror.

I am Valerie, she said. I am a person. This is my face.

*

She got a job as a model, since it seemed to be what everyone thought she should do. All day long she wore make-up and ridiculous outfits that no one who wasn’t a model would ever wear. Photographers took countless pictures and videos of her.

She did photo shoots in New York, London, Paris, Madrid, Cairo, Bombay, Tokyo, Tahiti.

In no time she’d risen to the top of the modeling world. Everyone had fallen in love with her. She was offered parts in movies and she accepted them, and she won awards and critical acclaim for her acting in these films. She was approached by music gurus who wanted to do albums and huge charity concerts with her that would be broadcast by satellite all over the world. She met and went to parties and galas and openings with world leaders, revered religious figures, impossibly rich philanthropists.

She did a charity event in the Brazilian rainforest with a famous actor who lectured her about climate change.

If we let this go on, the actor said, Earth will be home to nothing but jellyfish and cockroaches.

We have to do something, Valerie agreed. This is a world for people.

The actor wanted to sleep with her, but Valerie declined. She had been fired up. She was on a crusade.

*

She traveled the world, speaking wherever she could, lending her fame to the cause. She was invited to the United Nations and gave an impassioned speech about the threat of climate change to everything humanity holds dear. When she’d finished the assembled delegates rose to their feet and applauded.

The media had to invent a new category just for her. She wasn’t a supermodel anymore. She was a hypermodel.

*

On a film set in Morocco Valerie met an actual prince and they fell in love and got married. She moved into his palace of marble and gold leaf. She ate her breakfasts at a long polished mahogany table, and her dinners at an even longer table, served by her own staff of chefs and waiters and accompanied by a string quartet playing Bach and Mozart.

When the prince and Valerie rode in their open-topped limousine through the streets of his city people waved and cheered and called out, Valerie! Our Valerie, the beauty!

*

Valerie and the prince had a child, a lovely golden-haired girl they named Athena. That was when Valerie gave up all of her public engagements, and devoted herself to motherhood.

*

One morning at breakfast Valerie’s husband watched over his newspaper while she fed their daughter.

He said to Valerie, You are so beautiful.

Valerie laughed.

I haven’t even washed my hair yet, she said.

No, the prince said. I mean you are beautiful. You are a beautiful human being.

Valerie was bringing another spoonful of mushed banana to her daughter’s mouth but she stopped.

What is it? her husband asked.

Mnh, grunted their daughter, wanting her next spoonful.

Valerie burst into tears. Her husband came over and put his arm around her.

What is it, darling? he asked.  What’s wrong?

Nothing’s wrong, Valerie sobbed. I love our life.

*

Into her dreams that night came the vast falling shadow, the dark planet hurtling toward her.

She cried out and woke in terror, her hair matted with sweat. The prince reached over to hold her and comfort her, but she shook him off and buried herself in the sheets.

I’m a bug, she whispered over and over. Step on me. Step on me.

*

Thomas Wharton was born in Grande Prairie, Alberta. His first novel, Icefields (1995), won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book, Canada/Caribbean division. His second novel, Salamander (2001), was short-listed for the Governor-General’s Literary Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. A collection of short fiction, The Logogryph, published in 2004 by Gaspereau Press, won the Howard O’Hagan Prize at the Alberta Book Awards, and was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize.

Wharton has written a YA fantasy trilogy, The Perilous Realm (2008-2013). His most recent book is the eco-fiction Every Blade of Grass, self-published in 2014. His work has been published in the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and other countries.

Thomas Wharton is an associate professor in the department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, where he teaches creative writing. He lives in Edmonton with his wife and three children.

No comments:

Post a Comment