The Tongue's Cat
(A Dissection in Thirteen Incisions)

Jeffrey M. Bockman

"Lernen wir traumen, meinen Herren, darin finden wir vielleicht die Wahrheit." * August Kekulé

ON THE NIGHT OF THE DAY THAT SOPHIA TURNED SIX, AS SHE SLEPT FULL OF DEVIL'S FOOD CAKE with butter cream frosting dotted with miniature ornaments of sugar and silver, she dreamed that something in her closet whispered to her, something that swayed back and forth on a wooden hanger, swayed into a dimly moonlit rectangle and then back into darkness, never more than a shadow; and perhaps a shiny button flared, or a tin box glinted on the shelf, and one could just barely, in the absolute stillness of that room, hear that special sound that hangers make when they knock against each other, wood on plastic, plastic on wire; and what was whispered she remembered when she awoke and took to heart as if she had been bestowed with a special secret: Men are animals.

Sophia opened her eyes to the light streaming through the uncurtained bay windows, a brilliant light scattered into miniature rainbows by the beveled and wintry glass. She tumbled out of her unshared bunk bed and scraped across the hardwood floor in her footed Babar pajamas to her dressing closet, dragging her oversized stuffed Dalmatian behind her. When every dress, skirt and blouse lay strewn on the floor of the bedroom and every reachable box was piled with lids ajar and sundry toys and games and abandoned gifts spilling out, including the latest packages from her mother (a stuffed owl pillow, a miniature Tales of Beatrix Potter, a green chalkboard), the closet was left definitively empty and still. Except for the swaying hangers, tinkling softly like chimes.


Dr. Jecks rested his latex-gloved hand on the cold glass of the bell jar as he watched the last breaths of Calpurnia condense on the inside. For a moment he caught a small, distorted view of himself, his almost too finely sculpted features rendered more humanely imperfect--as if he himself had carved and hollowed, shifted fatty deposits, fractured and re-grafted bone. Calpurnia was barely visible through the thick white fog which bubbled up from the chunk of dry ice sitting in a cat-dish of water. Yawning reflexively, she slid into terminal sleep. Working swiftly, he dipped the cat in a bucket of Lysol and then pinned it down on the diapered cork board, sprawled on her belly like a flying squirrel. Gripping the eye sockets with a rat-toothed forceps he cut through the tissue at the nape of the neck and then, switching to a six inch iris scissors, he snipped in opposing arcs through the bone and flipped open the skull like the hood of a car. With his left hand he scooped up the cat's brain and placed it gently on a polystyrene cutting board. Deftly slicing several pieces of tissue from various regions of the brain, he dropped these into individually numbered vials of fixative. He then carefully slipped the brain into a half-quart piece of Tupperware. Removing his bloodied gloves, he placed on the lid, burped it according to instructions, and carried it to the -20°C freezer in the garage. Before storing it away, he labeled the container with blue tape, printing with an indelible black fine point Sharpie the cat's name and the date of sacrifice. He placed it between a red-labeled container and the herb and port wine sorbet.

The tape was color-coded: blue for cats, red for dogs. The yellow, orange, green, pink, and white tape had yet to be used.


Another of the neighbors' animals had disappeared. "It's getting to be like the Bermuda Triangle around here," said a churlish old man in slippers to the paperboy, whose own dog Teddy, an otherwise sedentary pet, had disappeared a month before. The five dollars with tip fluttered to the porch. "Here's your hat, what's your hurry," he mumbled to the fleeing boy as he stooped to gather up his money.


The Home was a beautifully gabled, white meringue Victorian with lemon curd trimmings, sitting atop an historical grassy knoll at the far western edge of Stalanep Valley. From her dormer window Sophia could look out across the entire town, and would on occasion think of herself as a maiden ensconced within the turret of a castle, like Rapunzel.

In the early settler days the knoll had been covered with wild grasses a foot tall, where flustered teenagers would beat down a hiding place for their first awkward trysts. Later, a fine colonial mansion surrounded by a grove of imported cherry trees had been built by a respectable captain home from the sea, retired from his profitable particularity--his being the necessary and sufficient means of transport in the economic triangulation of rum and sugar cane and young Nubian girls. In fact, he had returned with several souvenirs of the last, which ample gift-giving of the former had quelled the gossiping over. After the captain drowned in a fire which scuttled his mansion, having taken refuge in a huge Venetian bathtub in which he was overcome by smoke, the property, being without legitimate heirs, passed to the township, which deeded it to the First Congregational Church under the pastorate of the Venerable Thomas Andrew Harvard, who led its flock nobly for twenty years, ably assisted by his wife, the former Abigail Warley of Worcester, England, who played admirably her prized Gainsborough spinet (specially designed for her in London, since one of her legs was shorter than the other). When the Reverend and a local lady of the evening were found outside the church one Sunday morning slumped beneath a cherry tree, bedecked with blossoms and the torn love letters of the past fifteen years, which had themselves taken on a certain blossom-like hue from the blood, the church found itself without a shepherd. And for that matter, without the lopsided widow Abigail and her spinet, both of which had disappeared. The old saltbox church stood decaying for many years, haunted more by morality than specters, the brandished example and bane of every youth who strayed from the path of respectability, until a wealthy big city lawyer bought it up at the turn of the century. He tore down the prim and proper church and raised the fancy gingerbread Victorian as his summer home. In the cherry grove he built a replica of the home as a playhouse for his six year old daughter, exact down to the miniature copy of a Louis XIV commode, which resided in the master bedrooms of both dwellings. He brought his daughter Beatrice and invalid wife Constance to these houses each June through September, and while the wife breathed in the fresh country air the two of them, father and daughter, enjoyed drinking lemonade on the porch while quietly watching the stars, and bicycle trips into town for ice cream sodas, and increasingly mature conversations on their ever longer evening walks amidst the still plentiful tall grasses and fireflies. The man never returned after Beatrice was found hanging from one of the cherry trees on the night of her sixteenth birthday, having stood on and toppled the chimney of the playhouse. After overseeing the razing of the entire grove by a sympathetic and well-paid corps of local men, he departed the next day with Constance, who never spoke another word until her death almost exactly a year later. The house, however, remained well-kept until Mr. Heidt's death at 96, when, as stipulated in his will, it was endowed as a home for disturbed girls. In the family's tomb in a cemetery outside of Boston one can still see the crumbling remains, when the sun illuminates them in the early morning, of Beatrice's playhouse.

And so it was from the window of this house that Sophia would stare out across the Valley, feeling like Rapunzel, except that she had no hair to let down through the sealed window--it was just now beginning to grow back from her shaven scalp and, in any event, the pane was made of unbreakable safety glass.


"A white lady whispered to me," Sophia weakly proclaimed to her latest au pair, Jutta, who discovered her sitting amidst the strewn contents of her closet. The young woman stood momentarily paralyzed with fear. Sophia's green eyes were sunken this morning, lost within the dark circles which were so apparent against her pale skin. Her mother's pendant, a family heirloom, was ensnared in her tousled hair. A few black strands were stuck against her damp lips. Jutta rushed to her and scooped her up in her arms. Carrying her back to the bottom bunk, she knocked against the night stand, spilling a half-empty glass of water. The medicinal blue-tinged liquid trickled down a whorled leg and, channeled by the seams in the parquet, puddled at the head of the bed. "You've had a bad nightmare, haven't you, dear," whispered Jutta into her ear, kissing her cheek and then gently disentangling the pedant from her hair. By the time the pendant was free she was sound asleep. Jutta shivered. She recalled her mythology classes at the gymnasium and the tales of the White Ladies, who received the souls of maidens and young children. Why are there no curtains here, she thought suddenly, angrily, looking out the bay windows into the bright cold sun. She turned back to Sophia and stared at her illuminated, tranquil face. The pendant glowed from the hollow of her neck, a woman's head of white coral being pulled from both sides by golden hoops, which were grasped by clenched fists of turquoise. She tucked the blankets up under Sophia's chin and walked over to the closet. She knelt down and picked up a small chalkboard. A half-erased sentence was still visible: Men are animals. Jutta began to shake.


What I wish, by sophia jecks

If I wasn't a girl I'd be a boy cause boys can have fur and sharp teeth and they can have wings and get away or be a fish with a sword on their head. Boys don't have to go to bed early and aren't scared of the hall at night. Boys can pee standing up like animals and it doesn't hurt them at all.


Dr. Jecks stared out his home office window, across the green expanse of lawn towards the valley's low western hills which were just now showing traces of autumn color. He could just make out the roof of the Beatrice Heidt House, peeking out from above the Norway Maples that the city had graciously planted to replace the cherry trees. The receiver clutched in his hand drifted away from his ear with a disembodied slowness. "I've exhausted the somatic and psychosomatic possibilities," he emphasized into the phone, jerking it back suddenly. Folding and refolding a piece of pink labeling tape into smaller and smaller squares, his frustration buzzed back to him from the receiver in electrostatic echoes. He ran through a mantra of considered and discarded hypotheses: she is not deaf, she does not have receptive aphasia--she hears me, understands me, occasionally even reacts to me; her mnesis, gnosis, and praxis are intact; she does not appear by the full battery of invasive and non-invasive procedures to have any identifiable lesions in the brain, nor are her chemical profiles abnormal--she is not lost in oneirophrenia, she is not depressive nor does she display signs of some unusual adult-onset autism..." Dr. Jecks sat down and slumped back into his black leather armchair, the black phone resting in his white-gowned lap. On his chest was a fluttering of red butterflies, where he had wiped his gloves. "...oh yea, baby, that's it, yea, mmm...To listen to another hot and nasty little girl, please push the pound button now..." Slamming the receiver down, he lept up to his private operating table and peered down into the blood-filled hollow of the rabbit's skull. Lacustrine and still, he remembered from some long-forgotten poem.

He thought of a winter at Lago de Como, where he and his wife had gone when Sophia was four. It was just before Christmas and the main street of shops was lined with a red carpet, and draped above from the inward leaning buildings on either side was a thick bough of branches hung with crystal balls which caught the yellow and amber lights from the bustling stores. There had been few tourists at the pensione--just an old Italian couple from Naples visiting D'Annunzio's estate, and themselves. One early evening, when they were all resting by the common fire after a long day of shopping, he had gone off exploring the inn. In a little alcove for the phone the years of preceding guests had left an assortment of books in a dozen languages piled up haphazardly on a single shelf. He had found a copy of Alice in Wonderland, which, he distinctly remembered, was solidly lodged in the middle of a tall and precarious stack, between a German translation of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea and L'Alchimie et les Alchimistes. Like a magician pulling a tablecloth from beneath the set banquet--or like a surgeon removing an epileptic lesion from the brain--he had deftly snatched the book without disturbing the tower of words. Returning, he had sat beside his wife, with Sophia on his lap, and read aloud to them the entire book.

Shaking off his reverie, Dr. Jecks picked up the tape dispenser and pulled off a strip of white from the collection of colors. "No, no, no, this is not right, this is not it--it is not a matter of history but science, an exact and exacting science, a solitary science, a science of resilience, of being deaf to the narrowness and the calumnies of colleagues and friends, a science of pursuit, the elusive and mocked path to truth. Secure in the intuition of science, guided by my dream like Kekulé was by his, I take arms against drudging dogma and the catatonic canon!" With this final rhetorical flourish he brandished the disposable scalpel, which would have sprinkled a pretty galaxy of stars across the rug if the blood had not already dried. Dr. Jecks tossed the scalpel into the sharps container and reached into a styrofoam cooler beside the body, from which he pulled out the now frozen brain. Dropping it into its appropriately labeled container, he lamented to the splayed rabbit: "No tea party for you I'm afraid."


"Now Sophia, I don't want to keep sitting here listening to myself talk. I brought you a tape recorder--inspired more by Equus than by Harvard, I might add. And a pen and paper--a pen, which I might emphasize again, is my own personal favorite--you'll see that I'm taking notes here--or rather, not taking notes--with a lousy office supply catalogue pen which leaves little red spots on my fingertip like a rash--a pen, I was saying, which is just like that used on the space shuttles--writes upside down, under water, in extreme cold or heat." Dr. Gardner stopped and observed Sophia scratching invisibly on the formica desktop. Sophia looked up at her silence and smiled. "Perhaps if I instructed the staff not to clean this room for a few weeks you'd have a nice layer in which to leave your mark." Dr. Gardner's sarcasm, although not generally conscienced by her colleagues, particularly her former colleagues in Boston, was a welcome relief to Sophia after the stuffy hospitals in the city and the even stuffier doctors. She noticed Sophia staring at her left hand, which was casually spooling several locks of blonde hair. "Just because I'm a psychologist doesn't mean I'm free from habits, ticks, or compulsions. Or traumas, for that matter." Dr. Gardner finished this sentence with a pointed stare into Sophia's green eyes. Sophia returned to scratching her unseen sentences, but this time she traced her secrets on her right forearm, leaving white letters becoming red on pale skin. Removing the pen she had been chewing on from her mouth, Dr. Gardner glanced at her watch and then flicked it with her forefinger. "Dammit. Well, I'm glad we had this time together, catching up on old times." Sophia looked up and watched as Dr. Gardner, scowling, uncrossed her legs and rose to leave. She looks more like Rapunzel, she thought, with golden tresses and coral lips, and eyes as blue as the azure sky of deepest summer. And I am the Doctor's broken clock--I keep on ticking but I can't seem to talk.


Sophia is dreaming of a stairwell flooded with light and a young girl with bobbed blonde hair, standing with a sandwiche bag in her outstretched hand, full of something squishy and dark. Sophia is standing on a landing between floors, wearing only a t-shirt and white underwear with red butterflies. And there's a little boy three stairs up who keeps on asking her to remove her t-shirt. She throws it on the cold marble floor and he begins to pee onto it. The girl with the baggy moves closer. Look, she says, you can have this. And then suddenly Sophia is in a cornfield, she and a boy and another girl, and the green cornstalks are twice as high as they are and they're hidden amidst the rows. She knows the two are brother and sister, and that the girl is deaf. She watches as the brother pulls down his sister's skirt and underwear. Her vagina is scarlet and she rocks back and forth making nasal sounds between moans and words. Sophia runs and runs until she comes to a forest with a secret path, the boys' path, and she runs through the bushes and vines and branches and scratches herself on thorns and stains herself with blackberries and the middle of the forest is cleared and night has fallen and the boys have a fire. They are naked, going to the bathroom and wiping themselves with leaves, laughing and offering them to her, but she knows they're poison oak, and they're surrounding her and jumping up and down and their little boy penises are flopping and she wants to laugh but she knows that if she does, if she does....Instead she lunges through the circle of boys into the fire, and then out the other side. She looks like a comet as she crosses back and forth across the darkened fields, her long hair trailing behind her ablaze, leaving a scrawled declaration in the fiery grass before she lifts off the ground to join the owls and other solitary wise creatures in the evening sky.


Having embedded the fixed pieces of tissue from each species in paraffin, Dr. Jecks sectioned the dice-sized cubes of wax at a thickness of seven microns, affixed them to slides brushed with egg white, and then stained and counterstained them with hematoxylin and eosin. As he peered through the microscope at the surreal cellular landscape of purple and pink, he succumbed briefly to the possible futility of his project, likening it to a spy satellite's scanning the surface of the earth for a particular misplaced needle. Slumping down in his seat he grew pallid and his body was convulsed shivers. An image of himself and Sophia flashed through his mind, of when she was three or four and he would pretend to be a cat, pursing his lips together and purring as he lifted her shirt and rubbed his head against her belly, making her laugh. Forcing himself to hyperventilate through his clenched teeth, he straightened up and dug his fingernails deeply into his palms. The shaking subsided and he was quickly back at the ocular, dialing the fine focus up and down as he began his rigorous assessment of the sizes and shapes of organelles, the dispursement of cell types, on guard for the appearance of unusual structures which could be indications of the pathology for which he sought the key. As Kekulé's dream of the tail-eating serpent, the alchemist's ouroboros, led him to solve the riddle of benzene, so I am guided by a dream to solve Sophia's silence, Dr. Jecks mused, scribbling a note in his laboratory notebook concerning slide three, cricetid medulla.


"Marian Gardner." She listened to the silence at the other end of the phone, and then a dial tone. She buzzed her receptionist, who said that it had been a man calling himself Dr. August, who claimed to be collaborating with Dr. Gardner on a case. "Now if he calls again, John, put him on hold and buzz me first. I don't know any Dr. August." She returned to her casebook and began chewing on the end of her red pen. The book was full of Sophia's history, as culled from interviews with family and friends, teachers and other doctors, covering her life from before she stopped speaking at thirteen until the present, nearly sixteen years old. Since she refused to even write down any responses to questions, all her previous doctors, since she tested fine physically, had considered the case hopeless--one born of some latent childhood trauma or extreme willfulness, but likely to resolve of its own accord in either case given time, unless one wanted to try drugs, but her father had been adamant in his refusal to allow such treatments. Still, Dr. Gardner was not satisfied with this passive diagnosis and prognosis. She could tell it in her eyes. Sophia wanted someone to figure her out, and whether her silence was psychosomatic or stubbornly symbolic was irrelevant. There was some real trauma, of that she was certain, even if her certainty derived from something akin to intuition. What was it Nabokov said, Marian thought, something about the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. Returning to her notes she suddenly realized the one glaring gap in the record, aside from Sophia--the au pairs.


Sophia could make out her house much more easily now that the trees were bare. The only stone house in Stalanep Valley. In the heat of summer you could refresh yourself just by pressing an inflamed cheek against the cool walls. They had never needed air-conditioning. This place, however, it was like being in the perfectly controlled environment of a museum, temperature and humidity and light adjusted to best preserve the specimen for study. And now she had missed the smell of burning leaves again. They must have really refurbished this place to insulate it so well that not the slightest scent of the outer world could enter. She pictured the leaves raked into great piles in everyone's yard. Then apples piled high in barrels and their cidery smell. And now another birthday. Someone could have piled the leaves dangerously close to a house. Everyone away on the entire block, at work, shopping, picking kids up from school, except him, sitting in his study, reading about strange disorders, diseases with exotic names like Munchhausen's Syndrome, the shelves alphabetized by specialty and sub-specialty, pulling down another tome, smelling the burning leaves, never suspecting...Sophia pulled over a chair and stood up on it. She leaned her full weight against the window, her face pressed up against the cold wintry glass.


Adding two microliters of the suspension of cat brain to the reaction vial, Dr. Jecks watched impatiently for the appearance of yellow, its rate of development indicative of the level of activity of a neuronal enzyme. Perhaps there was some form of organo-phosphorous poisoning, some insecticide that a careless gardener was spraying to protect a vain neighbor's apple trees, that had infiltrated the water supply. Perhaps Sophia had been stealing these apples at night and eating them without washing, as teenagers will do. He would have to ask the former owners if their pets, before they disappeared, had displayed any unusual symptoms such as loss of appetite or muteness.


"I have a present for you Sophia," Dr. Gardner announced as she entered her room. Sophia did not turn around but continued to stand and stare out the window. "Don't you want it? If you only knew what I went through to find just the right gift. And I'm sure its the right gift, too. Pretty humble, aren't I. Alright, you don't have to open it, though I wish you could have admired my wrapping job--it took me almost as long as it did to write my dissertation--so I'll just unwrap it for you. Nice paper, based on the drawings of Beatrix Potter." Sophia spread her hands out against the pane. "Why, what do we have here. Isn't this cute, a chalkboard and chalk." Sophia dropped her hands to her sides and turned. "Happy sixteenth birthday, Sophia."

(* "Let us learn to dream, Gentlemen, and then we may perhaps find the truth.")

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