The summer I spent on my nana’s farm upstate offered no end of diversions. Amusement could be found in, for example, shelling peas or shucking corn. A scintillating plethora of cherries offered themselves for the ready pitting. I breathlessly complained that I simply did not know where to begin.
A lurching husk of weathered human skin, her jawline and upper arms replete with flapping wattles, my Nana Minnie stood over her electric stove. She fiddled with the appliance’s complicated heat controls while the lid of a pot vented so much steam that the kitchen air shimmered, as sweltering hot as that of any Turkish hamam. Scads of local fruits had been slaughtered and arrayed about the countertops in differing stages of being skinned and dressed, and every work surface felt sticky with the dried blood of their flesh. Peaches, disemboweled of their stones, filled a large crockery bowl. Other fruits, apples, had been dismembered and embalmed in glass jars for their root- cellar interment. The aforementioned steam condensed on the walls, collecting into rivulets. It dripped from the ceiling. Busy amid all this butchery, my nana squinted at her grim labors, and, talking around the cigarette clamped between her pale lips, she told me: “Sweet Pea, darling, you’re underfoot. Go and entertain yourself.”
Entertain myself ? My nana must’ve been insane. As nicely as possible, grasping her not-clean apron strings and giving them a tug with my own smooth child’s hand, I said, “Nana, my darling, you might want to get screened for age-related dementia…”
Entertain myself! As if I could possibly use the sticks and dirtied rocks readily available to assemble a television receiver, then construct a distribution network and a local broadcast affiliate, then launch the production companies and stock the pipeline with a season of programming content. Such a venture, I told my nana, undertaken by a pre-adolescent girl over the course of a single summer, seemed highly not-likely to succeed.
“No,” my Nana Minnie said, tugging her apron free of my stubborn hold. “I mean you ought to read a book.” At this she abandoned her boiling fruity corpses. Nana turned to face me, grasping my shoulders, and ushered me from the kitchen, down a short hallway to the parlor, where bookshelves ranged from floor to ceiling, filling an entire wall. There she bade me choose from among the aged leather-bound tomes.
It must be noted here that I was not yet as passionate a reader as I would soon become. My Swiss school, although appallingly expensive, was largely weighted toward awareness of flashpoint environmental issues and the squelched civil rights of oppressed indigenous peoples. On the basis of these ethical priorities I protested that I couldn’t consider reading books which had been bound in the dead hides of factory-farmed, no doubt highly stressed cows.
My nana merely shrugged her weary, apron-yoked, farm-wife shoulders in response. Saying, “Suit yourself, little missy,” she exited the living room, returning to the dreary pastime of canning tomatoes or pickling field mice. Doing so, she called back to me over one calico shoulder; she warned, “You can read a book or you can beat the rugs. Take your pick.”
Such are my morals that I couldn’t fathom inflicting any form of violence, even upon an insensate floor covering. Nor did I fancy the other forms of stooped, agrarian fieldwork suggested by my nana: another weed pogrom… confiscating more warm ovum from poultry nests… Strictly as a political compromise I chose to select a book. My fingers trailed the dead leather of the various spines. Moby Dick? No, thank you. For once I was thankful for my mother’s famed Greenpeace affiliation. Little Women? Ye gods, too monstrously sexist an option! The Scarlet Letter? House of Mirth? Leaves of Grass? My nana’s shelves sagged, burdened with obscure, long-forgotten titles. Tropic of Cancer? Naked Lunch? Lolita? Fie. Nothing racy here.
People do not change over time. The elderly are, in reality, aged tikes. Conversely, the young are juvenile codgers… by and large who you are at eighty-five is who you were at five.”
Gentle Tweeters, in response to your charges that I’m too precocious for an eleven-year-old, please accept the fact that people do not change over time. The elderly are, in reality, aged tikes. Conversely, the young are juvenile codgers. Granted, we might develop some skills, achieve some profound insights over a lifetime, but by and large who you are at eighty-five is who you were at five. One is either born intelligent or not. The body ages, grows, passes through near-lunatic phases of reproductive frenzy, but you are born and die essentially the same person.
That… that is proof of your deathless soul.
Standing in my nana’s parlor, at last I resolved to shut my eyes. Thus blinded I pirouetted a full three rotations and extended an unseeing hand in the general direction of the shelved library. My fingertips brailled their ribbed bindings, the titles embossed there. The cracked grain of the leather felt soft, even crepey, not unlike the skin of my nana’s calloused hands. After stroking them all, my touch settled on the one I could sense was my destiny. Here was the book which would deliver me from my immediate impoverished circumstances, my long television-deprived days, my internet-starved boredom. My blind fingers closed around the book and pulled it from among its brothers. I opened my eyes to this new future.
Printed across the worn cover in gilded type was the author’s name: Charles Darwin. Here was a book to shelter me. A story I could hide within for months.
My Nana Minnie’s voice, hollering from the recesses of the farmhouse kitchen, called, “Time’s up, Pumpkinseed. Them peas ain’t going to shell themselves…”
I called back, “But I found one!”
“One what?” she called.
Putting a child’s happy smile into my voice, I called, “A book, Nana!”
A silent pause elapsed, broken only by the mating cries of icky out-of-doors birds trying to entice one another to engage in avian sexual hijinks. Indoors, the air smelled of cigarette smoke and the steam from my nana’s tireless torture cooker.
“What book?” my nana asked warily. “How’s it called?”
I turned the book sideways, searching its spine for the title. “It’s about a dog,” I said. “It’s about a cute little dog that travels on a maritime adventure.”
In response my nana’s voice sounded jolly, her tones rounded almost to laughter, the voice of a younger woman. In almost a girl’s voice she shouted, “Let me guess. It’s The Call of the Wild!” She shouted, “When I was your age I loved Jack London!”
My hands cracked open the book, and the pages smelled like a room where no one had walked for a long time. This paper room smelled enormous, with varnished wooden floors, and stony fireplaces filled with cold ashes, and dust motes swimming in the sunlight that fell through the room’s tall windows. Mine were the first eyes to peer inside this paper castle for generations.
No, the book’s title wasn’t The Call of the Wild, but – Gentle Tweeter – my Nana Minnie was happy. I was excused from shelling peas. That’s what mattered most.
The author was not Jack London, but who really cared? If I were to read slowly enough, this book would fill my entire desolate summer holiday. To tedious, odious upstate it would deliver all the joy and excitement of a bygone canine universe. Already, my head was nodding over the open volume, engrossed in the words and perceptions of some long-deceased narrator. I was seeing a vanished past through the alien eyes of that dead man.
Flipping to the title page, I read, printed there: The Voyage of the Beagle.
From Doomed, published by Jonathan Cape.
Chuck Palahniuk is the author of twelve bestselling novels including Fight Club, Choke and Damned as well as Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland and the non-fiction collection Stranger Than Fiction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.
Doomed continues the dark, apocalyptic afterlife adventure of Madison Spencer, the snarkiest dead girl in the universe, which began in Chuck Palahniuk’s recent bestseller Damned. It is published by Jonathan Cape and Vintage Digital in hardback and eBook. Read more.