Tuesday Fiction: “Eustace Albert” by Anil Menon
Sorry for the slight delay in posting – without further ado, here is this week’s story, by Indian writer Anil Menon!
By Anil Menon
The boy’s name was Eustace Albert. But that wasn’t the problem. His troubles were of his own making, and his mother summed it up neatly.
“Eustace,” said Mrs. Albert, “you are not a bat, and you should stop acting like one.”
“Eustace,” echoed Eustace, his mouth full of buttered toast, “you are not a bat, and you should stop acting like one.”
Mrs. Albert began to slather the next piece of toast. She nodded ominously at her son, but addressed her husband.
“Tell him, Mr. Albert, that if he keeps this up, Dr. Metenier will cut his tongue out.”
It was, of course, an empty threat. Everyone knows doctors simply aren’t allowed to do that sort of thing these days. No matter what the provocation.
“I’m serious, Eustace!”
“I’m serious, Eustace!”
He granted his mother a friendly glance, as if to say: ‘nothing personal, Mom.’
And indeed there wasn’t. Given the inanity of most human conversations, the echo is as reasonable a response as any. For example, what could possibly satisfy someone who asked:
“Hell, how do I know?” Eustace could have replied. “Why ask me? I just got here. Your guess is as good as mine. Look up and you’ll find out, what? The damn sky is up; shut up; ozone; boll weevils; your time is up? Take your pick, dude.”
But Eustace would merely echo.
It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Any fool can repeat, but it takes courage to void the ego and avoid the jocose intent. Eustace Albert eschewed intent. If you sounded happy, then he too would make the sentence purr. If the mood was somber (“Grandma died, Eustace”), he would try to be equally sad (“Grandma died, Eustace”) but no sadder. Eustace Albert wasn’t in it for the cheap thrills.
Echoing is an art form, where the unsaid is what counts. When the history teacher, Mrs. Richie, once asked him:
“Who was the commander of the Golden Hind?”
Eustace Albert inserted a silent ‘B’ before the Hind. It sat there in vulgar satisfaction, orangutan red, and begging to be paddled. Genius is a gift.
As expected, the herd didn’t appreciate his gifts. People resent being echoed. It’s hard enough to think straight as it is without having to deal with a mobile mountain range. They felt robbed, as if by photographing their words, Eustace Albert was stealing their identity. As philosophers love pointing out, identity means a bit more than the nightly sprint around the local fire hydrants. It extends outwards from the boundaries of one’s skin to “my” clothes, “my” job, “my” girl, “my” lunchbox, and goodness, even, “my” words.
But not according to Eustace Albert. Your words are his bitches, pal!
So it was war. Society versus Eustace Albert. However, he was like one of those resistant bacterial strains. The classic deterrents were useless against him. For example, it was no use trying to foil him with long complicated passages. Eustace Albert had invented the iconical-indexical echo: an echo that began with an “etc.” and the balance was a perfect reflection of some piece of the whole.
Well, they laughed at Edison too.
It was no use trying statements like “I am a monkey’s son,” or “I ate horse crap this morning,” or “My mother likes it in the–” well, you get the idea. The boy was immune to self-referential insults. For a simple reason: You are, therefore he exists.
To insult Eustace Albert was to insult yourself; why on earth would he take offense?
The kids had tried foxing him with foreign languages. Kishore– a weepy little Indian boy– was green-carded in to abuse Eustace in Hindi. Eustace responded with gobbledygook; to his mind (and most semioticians would agree) his task was to echo what he heard, and what he heard was gobbledygook. Eustace Albert: 1; World: 0.
They’d tried seduction. Betsy tried her booby grazes and hot thigh presses on Eustace Albert. She succeeded in frightening him, but somehow, he managed to coo her sweet nothings right back.
They kicked his ass, shoved him around, threw ink on his clean shirts, introduced him to toilet bowls, gummed him to school chairs, mussed his hair, and in general, did everything the Hobbesian state can do to enforce conformity. Eustace endured.
He developed an unusual capacity to hold his breath for yogic intervals. Fat as he was, he could easily outrun any kid on the block. He learned to look piteous and provoke both maternal as well as paternal instincts. He cultivated allies, waged psychological warfare, and in his own humble way, was as ruthless as Gandhi on a hunger strike.
In the end, they admired him. It was impossible not to. There was nothing more entertaining than to see a new teacher try to take Eustace Albert down; the boy could’ve sold tickets.
So yes, perhaps he was right not to take his mother’s threats about Dr. Metenier too seriously.
Mrs. Albert stared at her son. What would she do, she wondered, if Dr. Metenier also failed. Their family doctor, Dr. Ballycock, had given up tweaking pill dosages.
“Frankly, Mrs. Albert,” Dr. Ballycock had said, with a peculiar laugh, “it’s not a biochemical problem. I wouldn’t blame you if you used more physical means.”
“I’ll need a second opinion on that,” she’d smiled and immediately– illogically – felt guilty. “On the pills, of course.”
For a few seconds, Dr. Ballycock had said nothing. “There’s this expert, Dr. Gregory Metenier, who specializes in stubborn– difficult– cases. He’s new to the neighborhood but already has quite a reputation.”
“Not a psychoanalyst?” Mrs. Albert didn’t set much stock in the disgusting Freudian nonsense. “A psychiatrist?”
“Impeccable credentials. A student of Bruno Bettelheim, I believe. I’ll set up an appointment.”
“Bettelheim,” thought Mrs. Albert, as Eustace echoed his father’s burp. Hadn’t Bettelheim told fairy tales?
“Tell Eustace what happened to the boy who wouldn’t stop sucking his thumb,” she urged her husband.
Since she often addressed her husband instead of talking to her son directly, Mr. Albert had developed the unfortunate (but justifiable) habit of ignoring his wife.
“Yes? What? Oh. Came to a bad end, I’m afraid. A very bad end indeed.”
“Conrad. Wasn’t that his name, Mr. Albert?”
“Absolutely. Thumb looked like a prune. Smelled like a twenty-dollar wh–.” He coughed. “Why don’t you tell it, dear?”
Until now, Eustace Albert had only been skimming the conversation, but he immediately perked up his ears.
Mrs. Albert gave her husband the Do-I-have-to-raise-this-child-by-myself look. He retreated behind his paper.
“Conrad just wouldn’t stop sucking his thumb. His parents warned him and warned him and warned him some more. But he still wouldn’t listen. So one day: snip, snip! Along came the tall, red-legged tailor one day with his great sharp scissors and snip, snip! Off came the thumbs. Isn’t that so, Mr. Albert?”
“Absolutely. Jets of blood everywhere. Real geyser. Ghastly. Listen to your mother, Eustace.”
Eustace Albert’s eyes shone. This was the tops. Simply the tops.
“Listen to your mother, Eustace. Did Conrad spin like a garden hose?”
“You’re missing the point, Eustace.”
“You’re missing the point, Eustace. Did he, Mom? Did he spin? Like Sophie Fatale in Kill Bill?”
Mrs. Albert sighed. “I suppose so.”
“I suppose so!” shouted Eustace Albert, finger-scissoring the air. “Snip, snip!”
* * *
As a psychologist, Dr. Gregory Metenier was not exactly reassuring. It’s good to listen carefully, but to listen as if the other person was dinner, well, it simply made Mrs. Albert uncomfortable. The bizarre decor of his office was equally distressing; neither fun, nor cool and definitely not cute. What, for example, was the point of that barber’s chair? His secretary, Tanya, was equally non-reassuring; a beanstalk of a woman who kept surreptitiously sniffing her hands. If Dr. Ballycock hadn’t recommended Dr. Metenier with such enthusiasm, Mrs. Albert would have fled.
“Excuse me, doctor.” Mrs. Albert fingered the straps of her handbag. “But I– we must be boring you?”
“On the contrary. Do go on, madam. Spare me nothing.”
The cultured European accent wasn’t reassuring either. He sounded like James Mason in that unspeakable movie, Lolita. The accent didn’t match those large, knobby, calloused hands; the hands of a peasant. They embarrassed here.
Words poured out Mrs. Albert as if she were an overheated kettle.
“What I want to know, doctor, is whether Eustace has Tourette’s syndrome? I read this book on echolalia and it fit Eustace to a T. But that kid had catatonic seizures and Eustace doesn’t. Sometimes his blood sugar goes up, and he has to lie down but that’s about it. Dr. Ballycock says it’s not Tourette’s but what if there are some unknown varieties? That’s what I want to know. It’s not psychological. We can rule that out. Dr. Ballycock admitted I was a good mother. No Oedipal issues or anything disgusting like that. We’re good parents, we are. You can ask Eustace. Mr. Albert doesn’t take the interest I wish he would, but what can you do? He’s obsessed with his job – he’s a wedding planner – and you know how people are; it’s very sexist, that’s what it is. Mr. Albert planned our wedding, and let me tell you, it was spectacular. Simply spectacular. My sister thought the taffeta was a little much. It was this chameleon color–”
Dr. Metenier yawned. It was a real doozie; a hippo would’ve thought twice about tangling with its owner. Mrs. Albert was yawned into silence.
Dr. Metenier pointed a long knobby finger at Eustace Albert.
“Stop fidgeting, boy.”
“Stop fidgeting, boy. Up yours, Nimrod.”
“Eustace Albert!” Mrs. Albert blushed.
Dr. Metenier picked up a leather paperweight and twirled it on his glass pad. His smile was chilly.
“How long has he being doing this?”
“Since he was about five years old.”
Dr. Metenier continued to twirl the paperweight. “It is not catatonic schizophrenia. It is not Tourette’s syndrome.” He gestured with his chin at the scans lying on his desk. “It is not echolalia. Well, it is echolalia, but not what medicine calls echolalia. Nothing so modern.”
Mrs. Albert waited in suspense.
So did Eustace. Perhaps he only had a year to live. Oh, the scores he would settle.
“Is he a bad child, Mrs. Albert?”
“Bad child? I’m not sure what you mean …”
“Does he break things? Harass the family cat? Light firecrackers at inappropriate times? Does he trip people? Pull pigtails? Look up skirts? Eat soap? That sort of thing.”
“Dear me…. Nothing of the kind.”
“Then he’s civilized enough, Mrs. Albert. Annoying, yes. But that’s the quintessence of children. Why not let it be?”
“But what about later? Suppose he goes for a job interview. Or is on a date? Not everyone will be as understanding as you are, doctor.”
“Oh, I’m all for correction. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Isn’t that so, Eustace Albert?”
“Isn’t that so, Eustace Albert?”
“See, doctor! He’s incorrigible. The other day my sister had come to visit– Aunt Lorraine, Eustace. Remember? No don’t echo that! I’m trying to make a point.”
“Aunt Lorraine, Eustace. Remember? No don’t echo that! I’m trying to make a point. Can we go, Mom?”
“No, we can’t go. As I was saying, doctor, my sister Lorraine had come to visit, and Eustace drove her crazy– simply crazy– with his echoing. Poor dear. She didn’t dare open her mouth all weekend. Not that that’s a bad thing. She won’t let anyone else get in a word. It’s a family joke. Lorraine’s convinced it’s something in the food. All those additives they feed the chickens. Could it be, doctor? Dr. Ballycock wants to put Eustace on a regimen of Clozaril and Loxitane. I thought– Mr. Albert and I thought– we should get a second opinion on Loxitane. The FDA–”
“Oh no, madam,” interrupted Dr. Metenier. “No drugs. Too crude. We have to pluck out the problem by its roots. The old methods are the best. Let me think.”
He resumed twirling the paperweight.
“What would that be, doctor?” asked Mrs. Albert timidly. The silence had begun to buzz in her ears. “The problem, I mean?”
“Inappropriate echoing, of course. Are you sure, madam, that you want him cured? A narcissistic time needs its echoes.”
“I want a normal boy– not that he’s abnormal or anything.” She shot a quick glimpse at Eustace’s face. “He’s a darling. But we’ve become the laughingstock of the town. We simply can’t take him anywhere.”
Dr. Metenier leaned over and spoke into the intercom. “Tanya?”
Almost as if she’d been listening just outside, the secretary glided in. There was something wrong with her, thought Mrs. Albert. Something about the eyes, or perhaps it was merely all those piercings.
“Make an appointment for next Friday, Tanya. And please take Eustace with you; I need to speak to his mother in private for a few minutes.”
When the pair had left, Dr. Metenier turned to her.
“I prefer the old-fashioned methods, madam. You’ll have to trust me absolutely. Do I have your word?”
Mrs. Albert gave him a blank look. “Of course. That’s why I’m here. How many months do you think it’ll take?”
“Months?” The doctor smiled. “A single session should do it. Think of it as an exorcism. It will not be pleasant.”
“It won’t hurt, will it?”
Dr. Metenier steepled his fingers. “That’s not a sensible question. No pain, no gain. But I need your strength, not his.”
Mrs. Albert retreated into the forest of her mind. She nodded, a quick abrupt shake that left no doubt.
“Good. Tanya? Bring the boy in.”
* * *
Tanya was listening outside the door. Now and then she would turn to the boy and smile, as if they shared a secret. Then it was back to eavesdropping.
The creature was creeping him out. She was like a bat, only a little prettier. When she came over, he thought he heard the rustle of wings. But it was merely the rustle of her skirts. When she leaned down, he smelled lavender.
“Want to know a secret?” she whispered. Her kohl-lined eyes were alive with excitement.
“Want to know a secret? What?”
“His name’s not Metenier. It’s Putin.”
Eustance stared at her.
“It was my mother who slaughtered me.
It was my father who ate me.
But pretty Marlinchen looked for my bones
And laid them beneath the Juniper tree.
Kyweet, kyweet, kyweet
Oh, what a beautiful bird am I!”
Eustace continued to stare at her. Tanya leaned towards him.
“That’s from the Juniper Tree. Did you read that in school, my little pet?”
Eustace swallowed. This freak was whacked. “Etc. Did you read that in school, my little pet?”
The intercom burst into life: “Tanya. Bring in the boy.”
“Oh, you’re in for it now,” she whispered, and Eustace was unclear whether she was talking to herself or to him.
Tanya led him back to the office. His mother stood next to Dr. Death. Eustace Albert’s legs felt shaky.
“We shall be doing a glossectomy, Tanya,” said Dr. Metenier. “Set up the apparatus.”
He looked at the boy. “That means cutting out your tongue, Eustace.”
The boy blanched. He shot a look at his mother, but she looked away.
“That means cutting out your tongue, Eustace. You’re whacked, dude.”
Dr. Metenier nodded. “Your tongue was a gift, Eustace. Use it or lose it. That’s the law. Haven’t you read your fairy tales?”
Eustace made a dash for the door. But there was no escaping Tanya. She pounced; there was incredible strength in her arms. Eustace found himself half-carried, half-dragged to the barber’s chair and strapped down.
“Doctor,” his mother began. “I’m not so sure about this.”
“Trust me, Madam. He’ll be a much pleasanter boy without his tongue. Think of the peace and quiet.”
“Well–” His mother sounded confused. “As long as you don’t hurt him.” Her voice trailed off.
Was she crazy? Was she crazy? Eustace let out a roar.
“Do stop howling, Eustace Albert,” said Dr. Metenier in a matter-of-fact tone. “It’ll only hurt a bit.”
“Do stop howling, Eustace Albert. It’ll only hurt a bit. Mommy! Mommy! Help! Fire! Fire!”
Tanya rolled out a sterilized towel and began to lay out the necessary tools. Mirror bright stainless steel retractors, forceps, speculas, scalpels and bowls of assorted sizes. Rolls of crepe bandages, rubber tubing and boxes of wool. But the star of the show was a pair of stainless steel scissors, almost indecently large. It was unclear how it could possibly fit in a mouth.
Dr. Metenier held it up and showed it to Mrs. Albert with undisguised pride.
“The finest Seville scissors money can buy,” he said and clicked his tongue. “Surgeons used to be barbers.”
Tania had inserted something into Eustace’s mouth; he resisted with all his fury, but she pressed somewhere along his jaws and before he knew it, something cold and metallic pried and held his mouth open. He wet his pants. Dr. Metenier came over to inspect.
“A fine tongue. Pity it’s misused.”
“Oh dear, oh dear.”
“Now, madam, you must be firm. Do I have your permission to go ahead? To cut his tongue out?”
The doctor stared at Mrs. Albert. After a moment, she nodded; not to him, per se, but to the wall, the world and the wildness in all things. Eustace strained against his straps.
“I’m sorry, madam. Is that a ‘yes’?”
Tanya’s face broke into an idiotic half-grin.
“Yes,” whispered Mrs. Albert. “Cut it out.”
“Excellent. True love is tough love.” He looked down. “Isn’t that so, Eustace? Don’t you remember your fairy tales? Remember what happened to bad children? Dreadful things. Unmentionable things.”
Dr. Metenier smiled. His shadow loomed large over the tilted chair, the boy in it, the glittering instruments, Eustace Albert, everything.
“Do you know, Eustace, there are fifty-four mutilations in Grimm’s fairy tales? Children have always been morality’s fodder. Now it’s your turn. Snip, snip, Mr. Albert. Are you ready?”
“Dear me. I can’t understand a word. Tanya, hand me the scissors.”
The doctor turned to Eustace. “What’s that, boy?”
“Tanya, remove the clamp for a second. Give the boy his last words.”
The metal came out of his mouth like a grotesque alien probe. Eustace screamed.
Eustace shot a terrified glance at his mother. But she had her back to him, her hands were over her ears. He saw the blood-lust on the doctor’s face and the half-smile on Tanya’s. It was all true, realized Eustace. Witches and ogres, lost children and dying beauties. Threefold quests and stepsister’s bones; pigeon-pecked eyes and glass slippers; gifts that burdened and the pedagogy of fear. There were no safe places.
“NO! No! No!”
“Let me get this straight,” said Dr. Metenier with a smile. “Rip out my tongue, doctor.”
How the scissors gleam as the doctor waits for the echo! How the echo recedes in Eustace Albert’s throat!
“We were mistaken it seems. Silence is consent. Tanya, the sciss–”
Mrs. Albert turned and rushed over to his side. Perhaps she wasn’t a witch after all, but Eustace Albert would’ve his doubts for the rest of his life.
With a sigh, Tanya released the boy. The doctor tilted the chair back, removed the clamps, undid the straps and patted Eustace Albert’s head.
“Of what use is a principle if it’s abandoned at first bite? Either pick those less easily abandoned, or cultivate the art of abandonment itself. Consider yourself advised, Eustace Albert.”
The drive home was a quiet affair. At one point, Mrs. Albert felt something had come loose and she pulled over. She walked around the car, kicked each tire, tapped the gas cover, pressed the trunk, and then got in again, breathing heavily.
“Did you hear this clicking noise, Eustace?”
“No.” The boy had been very quiet throughout.
Mrs. Albert was very sure she’d heard something. She sat perplexed for a few seconds, with her hands on the steering wheel.
“Do you want to get an ice-cream at Kohl’s?”
He didn’t say anything. She glanced at his face; he looked lost in thought, and his eyes were half closed. Perhaps he simply hadn’t heard her.
“Do you want to get an ice-cream at Kohl’s, dear? I think I would.”
They resumed their journey. Mrs. Albert had to stop two more times to make sure, absolutely sure, there really was no sound at all.
What of Eustace Albert?
What of Eustace Albert? There’s no reason to doubt that he lived happily ever after.
“Eustace Albert” (c) 2005 Anil Menon, first published in Time For Bedlam.
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