Kij Johnson

Wife reincarnated as a solitaire—Exposition on the flaws in my spouse's character—The nature of the bird—The possible causes—Her final disposition

One of my favorite books is Laurence Sterne's eccentric Tristram Shandy. I love everything about the book's voice, so I thought I would try it for myself. This story and has not been published before this collection.

My wife seems returned to me as a solitaire: a great ugly mean-spirited bird:, feathered and stubby of physique; with a great bulging beak, a surly mien and an omnipresent squawk. To deny so unnatural a fact would be a comfort; but a sensible man faces difficult truths.

Having accepted so extra-ordinary a change, her new form is unsurprising. She was ever a squat, awkward woman; resentful in nature; recalcitrant as to a wife's right duties of acknowledging her husband's sovereignty and holding household to his general betterment; and importunate in her demands regarding that amative act that leads to the wife's other great labor, the bearing of progeny.

While her new physical form is unappealing, even by the standards one would apply to fat wingless fowl, they are at least collected into a body that scarce reaches my thigh:—and in three things at least she is considerably improved by the change: firstly, that the sounds that fall from her, one can no longer say lips but must now say beak, may the more readily be ignored without unfavorable judgment, when even the most assiduous listener—such as our vicar Mr. White who has, perhaps even to a fault, exhibited a most accommodating charity with regard to my wife; proof that a man of the cloth indeed suffers much in his duties—can find no meaning to them; secondly, that she no longer makes unreasonable demands upon my pocket for house-keeping, clothing, or other extravagant purposes; and thirdly that her transmutation into a bird has brought completely to an end those impositions of an intimate nature which she had hitherto made with such frequency that they might nearly constitute harassment—though in truth, they had abated somewhat in her last months and final illness.

It was Mr. White who recognized her species, when first we returned to my wife's room after she had breathed, for so we imagined it, her last; and found there instead of the relict—her cast-off shell—this large gray bird, its inutile wings a-flail as it sought to hop from the bed. At this sight he grew most excited, and even, as one might say, exhilarated.—She is become Pezohaps solitaria! said he.

—Indeed! said I;—How do you know what bird she is become? 'Tis most specific, sir.

—'Tis a lucky guess, says he picking her up with something of a grunt (for even as a bird she remained somewhat plump) and feeling over her limbs with curiosity,—There are plates in the Transactions—'tis the Rodrigues solitaire, as you might call it; 'tis related closely to the dodo; and 'tis said to be extinct, these twenty years and more.

—If 'tis my wife, in some fashion changed, said I:—then, extinct indeed, and yet not extinct enough. Perhaps for the salvation of her soul, we would be wiser to dispatch it immediately.

—'Tis your wife, sir! said Mr. White:—You can say this?

—'Tis a bird now, sir, said I;—A great homely one, too.

—Well, if you feel thus, said Mr. White,—Perhaps you shall not think so ill of remanding her: it, I should say: to my care, so that I might demonstrate it to the members of the Royal Society on my next visit to town.

Mr. White is, as are apparently all vicars, a natural philosopher and member of the Royal Society;—which honor I might myself have claimed, for while I do not like to boast, my intelligence is such that I have been flattered many times by the deference shown my opinions when I have occasion to bring them forth at the Crossroads, or at the Shoes & Keys, or even at Eeles's coffee-house in town; which respect all auditors have each time demonstrated by falling silent as I spoke; and by a certain fixity of expression about the eyes, as they struggled to keep pace with the rapidity of my processes.

Since his arrival at the parish, some months ago, after Lord C_____ gave him the preferment, Mr. White has been often at my house. 'Tis my wife's doing, for while Mr. White is not of such acuity as might make him an ideal companion for a sensible man—he was peer enough for my wife, who I am sorry to say, reading and but imperfectly absorbing such books as fall to her hand, sets herself up as a wit, the unhappy result of a father's overindulgence in old age; and she often suggested that the vicar join us for dinner or tea.

—Poor man, said she;—He has few enough good meals, eating whatever that slut thinks to give him; he'll never have had tarts like mine: for my wife disliked Mr. White's cook, calling her slovenly, lazy, and ill-mannered; which slur, which might with equal accuracy be directed in a more immediate direction, caused me more than once to bite my lips.

—Wife, I had several occasions to remark:—'Tis an act of charity to feed Mr. White at our board, but to do so thus often becomes an affront, implying as it does that he has not the good financial sense to keep his own house, but must rely instead upon the generosity and kindness of others.

Said she, most contentious:—'Tis not about him but about your own cheeseparing nature; 'twill not kill you to feed your betters once in a while.

Said I,—'Tis not once in a while that bothers me: 'tis his almost constant attendance; but she paid little attention to my reasonable and—despite her unkind and inaccurate words—unselfish concerns. He dined thus often with us; and he managed to put away his bottle a night.

Mr. White was quite a favourite of my wife. In his kindness, he allowed her to draw him away from our own more sensible discourses, and they spent hours in close converse: I asked her of what they spoke and she said, matters of doctrine and faith; and indeed, though I was often barred from their conversations by Mr. White's over-developed sense of the sanctity of confession: a belief so extreme in his case that it seemed quite Roman—their conversations did have a beneficent effect in one matter at least; for, though their colloquy sometimes distracted her from her household labours to the extent that I came home from the Shoes & Keys more than once to find dinner burnt, the kitchen maid flirting at the back gate with the carrier, and even my wife's attire in some disarray, as though she neglected that spousal duty to keep herself presentable and pleasant-appearing to her husband:—still their discussions brought decrease in her attentions vitale, as Mr. White led her with his counsel to understand the proportionateness to be sought in this, as in all other behaviours.

Her illness came upon her some weeks after Mr. White's arrival; and it proved most difficult, indeed impossible, to diagnose: our Dr. Thrale confessed himself at a loss and proposed that he send for a physician from town; but for once in her life my wife refused to spend money upon herself, even saying that, should the London doctor be summoned, she would go so far as to lock her door and deny him entrance: even the suggestion by Dr. Thrale so offending her that she barred her door even to him, preferring, as she said, to die attending most carefully to Mr. White's good counsel regarding her immortal soul, even excluding me from her chamber as he answered her questions and brought her to, as I hoped, a gentle acceptance and remorse for her many failings.

Then came the day, when Mr. White walked into my library uninvited—his constant attendance in my house made him sometimes unrespecting of the little proprieties that make our Civilisation so shining an example to the World at large—and said: Sir, it is nearly done: she shall pass on this very evening.

—Then I shall speak with her, said I.

—I do not think that wise, sir, said he:—She should instead devote her final energies to contemplation of the Divine.

—I am not an unreasonable man, said I:—If she apologize for her contumacity, for subverting all my plans and desires, and for her importunate demands on my pocketbook, time, and person, I shall most willingly forgive her, and she shall pass from this world with her conscience cleared of these sins.

—Well, sir, said he after some coughing:—In that case I only request that you be brief.

When I came to see her on her death-bed, she indeed did seem at peace, calm and even content: surprisingly pink (as Mr. White assured me she would, giving as cause the fever that scorched her very body; though I felt little enough of it when I took her hand): yet much exhausted.

—Well, she said: or rather croaked, for she was quite hoarse from crying out in recent nights, her pain spurring her to such great volume that at last I had taken to sleeping in the library, in an elbow-chair; waking up with a great pain in my neck that left me feeling quite weak;—You'll be rid of me soon enough.

—Wife, said I:—What is this! I want only your happiness and well-being; and a few tears dript from my face and nose. A moment later, I realized it would have been a delicate sentiment to have said,—and your health; but the time was past.

—B*******, said she: employing a word I did not know she knew and which made me despair of her future bliss:—Well, it hardly matters now: You are rid of me; and I escape to a better place.

—I hope, said I,—That this is true, though I must confess as your loving husband—, at which point she made a noise that has no orthographic equivalent,—That I have some slight doubts about your welcome in Paradise; for, forgive me, but you have shown but little understanding of your duties as a Christian, a woman, and a wife.

This was an unfortunate statement and had I not been in considerable pain from my sleepless night I would not have demonstrated the failure of judgment that opened me to her subsequent calumny; for my benignant counsel brought forth from her an unreasonable fervid tirade about my flaws as Christian, man, and husband, decaying into such libelous peroration that there is no point to recording it here.

—'Twas my own fault, said she when her spleen was spent:—Father wanted me to wait to wed, but I was too eager:—as indeed she was, demonstrating in our early months of matrimony so high a level of ardour that my health suffered, as under unsavory siege: after a time I had often been able to divert her attentions into argument.

I shook my head in sorrow: I ventured a few gentle words meant to direct her thoughts to more proper channels for a woman who walked in the very shadow of Death; but she raised herself from her bed to hurl an empty jug at me, which only narrowly missed and shattered against the doorjamb: a valuable white-ware jug from my great-uncle's estate; and then falling back, she coughed feebly and said:—I fail. Send Mr. White to me.

I hastened to my library where Mr. White sat alone reading a book my wife had some weeks before taken from my library; instantly seeing its inappropriate nature and showing a judgment otherwise occasionally lacking in his bookishness, Mr. White had confiscated it; and was reading it, attempting, as he said, to learn in what fashion its contents might have damaged her hopes for Paradise; and informed him of her request.

This book is perhaps of interest at this point; for in it, as I have come to believe since her demise, is the profane cause of her change into a solitaire. As a youth, my father expended considerable resources (though to be sure no more than he could or should have, in the education of his son and heir) in sending me upon the Grand Tour; and in my travels in distant Turkey, I met a man in a den which I visited solely for the sake of my education, seeking to learn what I might of even man's lowest estate; he was an Englishman and spoke in an educated tone—though it was only that of Cambridge—but he wore mere rags, and was thin and ill, the result as he averred of years spent in the Himalayan mountains with Bhuddist priests; but which I attributed to opium.

From that Englishman I purchased the notebook of his researches there, in part the translation, as he assured me, of a work sacred to the heathens. 'Twas illustrated with his own drawings in colored inks, of the temples, peoples and mountains he had observed; and it seemed a most useful document to me, of such nature that I might impress my father with the breadth of my learning—were I to offer it as my own accomplishment—for the Tour had been far more expensive than my father's frugality had budgeted for, and our correspondence was of not such volume or frequency that I thought he would detect the difference in hand-writing.

The Englishman wished to sell it for five pounds, but with my superior bargaining skills I was able to acquire it for the local equivalent of eighteen and sixpence—and I should have been able to get it for much less, had he not rallied from his coughing-fit and stood fast at that sum. The work proved to be of great utility: my Latin language was a trifle unpolished, for it had been some time since I had attended to it, preferring instead to devote my thoughts to more important topics; but the pictures were of great use in generating stories: my father knew nothing of Thibet and thus accepted any statement I made; the men at Eeles's and the Shoes & Keys listened to every word I chose to utter with flattering attention; and the locale was sufficiently removed from the normal circuits that no-one asked questions that might be difficult or awkward to answer.

I knew even from the title on the cover that it was an impious work; 'twas styled De mysteriis orientalibus thibetensibusque cum philosophiis magiae mortis vitaeque futurae liturgiis ex originalibus conversis; the words for Magic, Life and Death clear enough that even my wife must have understood them; though I had had no idea her father's ill-considered opinions about the education of women—to my mind of no great value, making them sullen, contentious and froward: my wife the exemplar of this—had extended to the language of scholarship.

My book remaining yet in Mr. White's hands, he went upstairs to attend her deathbed. His calling demands that he walk into humble places and show concern about the souls of even low men: still, my wife's character must have made attendance nearly as onerous for him as would have been time spent with thieves and poachers—though he did not in general meet with any but the neighbourhood's best company; but instead sent his curate.

A scarce hour later, he came back into the library.—Alas, your wife has passed from this life! said he.—But she is happy at last, in the bosom of her Lord. He seemed tranquil, as befits a man of the cloth in the face of that most natural of processes, that of life into death; though he was clearly tired, with great circles of fatigue under his eyes and some disorder in his dress that hinted at her final throes.

I leapt up, the journal I had been reading slipping from my hand. I said some words of loss, and wept for quite a minute; before accompanying him to her bedside the empty husk that was all that remained of her.

However, as I have described earlier, there was instead that bird, its head tipped sideways to stare at me with one small unintelligent black eye. Having gathered it up, Mr. White brought the solitaire down most carefully into the library and stood it upon my desk, where it looked again at me and then left a gleaming grey-white turd in its exact middle, on the funeral notice I had been attempting to draft.

—'Twas that ****** book, said I, in my indignation incautious with my language; though he did not seem over-bothered, perhaps understanding my extremity:—She has done this solely, to haunt me for-ever.

—Perhaps, said Mr. White,—Her existence mortuus is not fixed upon you, but her conversion to this form has been for some other reason; and when I further questioned him, he offered three possible causes: first, that she had died and been reincarnated, which was my own suspicion; second, that she was being punished in this fashion for some sin—perhaps, as I suppose, for her amative tendencies, for except for that season in which it mates, the solitaire remains much alone; and third, that she was truly and forever dead, and that this bird had spontaneously and instantly generated from her corpus, as maggots from meat, but consuming it utterly.

Mr. White, to my surprise, seemed less interested in these possibilities, than in the question of why she had appeared as P. solitaria.—There was nothing to indicate this result, he said:—I must research further. I rolled my eyes, for philosophers, even natural historians, are ever impractical, and the proper inquiry was not, what she was—the solitaire's close relation to the dodo was, to my mind, reason enough—but what was to do with her, in this inextinct form?—which concern I voiced.

—Perhaps, said he,—You would allow me to take her to the vicarage tonight: it, I should say—and the bird nipped his hand where he ruffled its feathers; and he emended himself:—Very well, said he:—Her; to better consider what next to do.

—I do not know about that, said I:—Dead or not, she is my wife; it would hardly be proper for her to share a roof with a single man, even as a bird.

For the first time, the burdens of long attendance on my wife, offering what was clearly unheeded counsel, and his fatigue at ministering to her final hour: caused a certain understandable shortness in his reply:—For G**'s sake, said he:—Do you want her or don't you?

To be honest I have no use for a bird that is thought to be extinct, even a relict of my wife; and so I sent him off, the solitaire under one arm and the Thibetan book, its presence undoubtedly forgotten, under the other.

Surprisingly, despite his passion for acquiring the bird, in the two weeks since that date he has not yet taken it up to London, to the Royal Society for their inspection, at all. In plain fact, I have not seen the bird; which contents me considerably, for I have no interest in seeing my wife in whatever form. He claims to keep the bird inside, to guard it from the harmful rays of the sun and to better explore its natural functions. He claims as well, that the bird is as gentle as a lamb with him; though character will out, I am sure: and the bird eventually prove as great a burden to him as ever my wife was to me.

Yet he still speaks of taking it up to London, and even of staying some months there, leaving the parish in the curate's care. This may be a blessing for us all, for I have seen in recent nights before the curtains are drawn, seen him sitting in the evenings, with a woman in his library: presumably his housekeeper, for what other woman shares his household? And I am sorry to report that I did on one occasion—though I was in no way attempting to observe his actions; I merely walked in the lane relishing my newfound widowed state; his actions were visible to even the most uninterested eye—observe him embrace that woman most ardently. These manners may do for London, but have nothing to do with Plainfield.

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© 2007 Kij Johnson