Karen E. Taylor
They say he cried at my funeral. The news hounds pounced on the fact and instantly began their foul speculations about a life that had never previously been tainted with even the slightest tinge of scandal. I was, after all, America’s Favorite Single Mom, both on vid and off. I can only imagine what a huge shock it must have been to the stricken family and the six adopted grieving children to have this strange, dark and sullen man show up at the service uninvited. They say he scattered dried rose petals in my coffin, planted a passionate kiss on my cold, dead lips and strode out without a single word, tears streaming down his face.
Or so they say. He has kept the disks of all the news stories; I hear them playing on his viewer late at night. I have never seen the disks. Their viewing is not part of my programming. And I have never seen him cry, tears seeming even less a part of his programming than they would be of mine.
Except for the fact that he has programmed me to cry. I now possess a few elemental human emotions and reactions. I cry, I grow angry, I laugh. I even feel a form of hunger, when my power source is low. But I am just an infant, he says, over and over again. And as an infant, I must learn to become the woman I once was.
Often, I think I must be turning over in my grave.
Tonight he paces in his room. I hear the vid player droning; if I concentrate, I can almost make out the words being played. But I am not to concentrate on that. Instead I have an autobiography to scan. Her autobiography. Or more properly, mine, I suppose, since she is dead and I am she.
I try to obey his orders, but halfway through, I turn the viewer off. Although the life she led, one I can almost remember, seems so distant to me and so unreal, it was, at least, a life. Much more, I realize, than I could ever hope to attain. And here, I think, is a new emotion. I know the name for it. Despair. I do not like it.
But he will be pleased that I felt it. Did she feel it?
And was he pleased when she did?
Too many question, I think. Not enough answers. Quietly I rise from my chair and pace about my room as he does in his, absently shedding articles of clothing, until I am naked. It doesn’t matter, there is no one hereto see me. And even if there were, it would make no difference, an artificial creature has no shame.
Pictures of her adorn the walls, each alternated with a mirror. I stare at them, one at a time, studying her face to see where I fit in. All of the photos are publicity stills from the vid show. All but one. In this one she looks totally different from the polished image the others show. She stands in the middle of the Mexican desert, barefoot and disheveled, golden-tipped hair blown about in the wind, her arm extended toward the camera. It is night in the picture and a moon rises behind her, shining through her thin dress. The light makes her look as if she is glowing from within. Or perhaps it is not a trick of the light. She is beautiful.
She is, I realize with a shock, deeply in love.
I study her face. My face. Have I ever smiled like this, a smile as full and rich as the moon behind her? Attempting to imitate it, I peer at her picture, then the mirror, then the picture again. Shaking my head, I stop trying; I just cannot smile like that. Suddenly, I notice an object in her outstretched hand. I focus on it, hearing the almost imperceptible whirr of my enhanced eyes; closer and closer I bring the object into view.
It is a moth, a large moth, with a wing span of about four inches. Pale green with delicate tracings of brown and darker green, it nestles into her hand. She offers it to the person behind the camera.
I close my eyes and feel the moth tickling my hand. A smile of wonder and love crosses my mouth, her smile. And I hear my voice. "Look, my love. Isn’t it beautiful? What kind is it, do you know?”
I want to open my eyes and see him approach. But I know that if I do I will find myself back in my room. I do not want to be back in my room; I want to stay here. Here, behind my closed eyes, here, inside the mind of a dead woman, I am finally alive.
So I keep my eyes tightly shut. Even without seeing him I know he is close. An excited blush crawls over my skin; oh, yes, he is very close.
His hand, much larger than mine and rougher, cups the bottom of my hand.“It’s a luna moth,” he says. “Strange that it’s out and flying so early in the year. And yes, it is beautiful, but not as much as you.”
He takes me into his arms and the moth is forgotten.
In her mind.
In my mind I know that he has crushed and killed the creature in his rush to possess her, to possess me. I know who he is. And I hate him. As much as she loves him.
Maybe even more.
I jump and turn away from the wall; he stands in the doorway of my room. Drawn to me by the memory? I stare at him with eyes the same color as the moth’s wings and wonder. Why is he here? Why am I?
“Have you finished reading?” he asks. “That was quick, even for you.”
I don’t answer. I can’t answer. I’m unable to say the words I want to say.
But I can think them. You killed it, you bastard. It was beautiful, so beautiful. She loved it, I loved it and you killed it.
“Good,” he says, taking my silence as assent. He moves further into the room and I back away from him, fearing him, yet remembering the warmth from his closeness and the brush of the dead moth’s wings. His eyes stare into mine and I see a flicker of emotion in them. But what emotion? I am too unskilled at such matters to know. Then his eyes move away to the photos on the wall and change to a cold dark gray before he turns his back and walks out of the room.
“Jenny?” He pauses in the hallway.
“Put your clothes back on.”
“I think it’s time for you to go out in public.” The next morning is come and we breakfast together. Neither of us makes mention of the previous night.
“But won’t people recognize me?”
“Perhaps. At the very least, they’ll think you look familiar. But the public is fickle with a short memory span.” He falls silent for a second. “Yes, it is time,” he says, his voice lower now, “time for you to do what you were made to do.”
And what was I made to do? The unspoken question lies before us, a challenge and a plea, unanswered. So he dresses me up in a dead woman’s clothes and takes me out. Night after night he shows me off to his acquaintances, his colleagues and the world in general. I grow used to the stares and the whispers. I grow accustomed to the crowds and the conversations. I laugh at the jokes, my comments are witty and my appreciation of the arts and music what they should be. I fit into his world.
I do it well and he is pleased. I can tell by the glow in his eyes when I pass by him this night, on my way to the bathroom. The visit is a pretense, of course, since I have no natural functions. But the woman I was would have gone and so must I.
The room is empty when I get there so I need not pretend. Instead I stand in front of the mirror for a time, staring at my face, wondering where she is. The woman with the moth, with the smile of love lighting her face, where did she go? What happened that she should be dead and I was made to take her place?
With one hand I reach out and touch the cold smooth surface of a reflected cheek. With the other I touch my own face, also cold and smooth. I close my eyes and cannot tell the difference, until one hand becomes wet. I’ve been crying. For her? I wonder. Or for him? And then, oh, what sorrow have I opened onto?
“Don’t ever do that to me again.” He stands behind me.
“What?” I stammer, unable to understand his anger, trying to find an answer, a reason.
“Don’t try to justify yourself. This isn’t a game, it isn’t a script someone else has written for you. Real lives are left on the stage when you make your exit.”
“My love,” I start to speak, but he puts a strong hand over my mouth.
“I am not your love,” he growls the words, “you have proved that over and over. Damnable tramp, sniffing around when you get restless, then turning tail and running before it all gets too real.”
He turns me around and grips my shoulders, frowning at my tear-filled eyes. “Don’t you dare cry.” His mouth comes down hard on mine; not a show of love, but of anger. Hurting and bruising though it is, I lean into it, open myself to it and to him.
“No!” Helpless before the wave of memory which washes over me, I gasp at the coldness of his words, the cruelty. Even more startling is her total response of submission and love. She understands and accepts. I can’t.
I don’t want to remember this; it hurts too much. I open my eyes, but the memory remains. Oh, I think, this is how love feels. I know that she loves him. I can feel the responses deep within me. But the creature that I am does not love, cannot love. I force myself to remember the moth instead, crushed to the desert floor, telling myself that I cry for it and for her. Not for him. Never for him.
“I wish to go home.” I have made my way back through the crowded restaurant and come to stand behind his chair. My voice, although soft, carries over the conversation of the table. The other men sitting there stare at me then back at him.
“But, Jenny, my dear,” he slides around slowly in his chair, his movement subtly threatening, snake like, “I do not wish to go home. We will stay for a while.”
“No.” I taste the word in my mouth and find that I like it. So I toss my head back and say it again. “No. You may stay as long as you like. I will go home.”
He looks at me as if he might crush me. He stands slowly and I shrink back into myself. Deep inside my mind I hear a voice, her voice. Do not make him angry, not in public, not in front of others. “No,” I say again, ignoring the voice, ignoring the fear, “I do not wish to stay. I am going home.”
His fists clench; his eyes bore deep into mine, steel-grey and cold. Then, unexpectedly, they soften and he laughs.
“See, gentlemen,” he says to the table of expectant faces, “so much like the original woman. Headstrong and independent. Have you ever seen such perfection in an artificial being?”
The men shake their heads and laugh, but the women seem nervous about his bluntness. As, perhaps, they should be. It could just as easily have been one of them he’d replaced. Some of them, I am sure, have been the objects of his dubious affections. I can tell by the bruised look in their eyes when they meet his.
“Very well, Jenny,” he says, his voice sounds amused and patronizing, “we will go home.”
His good humor lasts exactly as long as it takes to engage a taxi. He slides his card in the slot and gives the driver our destination, then turns to me, his eyes dark and angry.
“Don’t ever do that to me again.”
I remember the words. I feel them deep inside me, the sadness they bring with them leaves a bitter, metallic taste in my mouth. Tears fill my eyes and I turn my head away.
He reaches over and grabs my chin. “Are you crying?”
He touches the tears on my face; I flinch away from his hand and he laughs. “Yes, you are crying. This is wonderful, Jenny. Absolutely wonderful. A real breakthrough.”
“You never thought it wonderful when she cried,” I say to him, turning away again. “You forbade her to do it.”
“How can you know that?”
I don’t answer him. He takes me by the shoulders and shakes me. “How the hell can you know that?” I just look at him and smile. And when the cab pulls up to the house, I get out without a word. I go to my room and lock the door.
Cruelty is easier to learn than love.
Morning again and now he is being charming. I enter the dining room and he stands and smiles, pulls out my chair so that I can sit. I see that he has left a single daisy lying by my breakfast plate.
“You are remembering, Jenny,” he says as I sip the hot nutro-drink from my mug. “That is why you were crying last night. But you shouldn’t cry about it. I want you to remember who you are.”
“Who I was, you mean.”
“No, who you are. You are Jenny. You have always been Jenny. And you always will be.”
He doesn’t answer the question. “This is happening sooner than it ever has before.”
“What is happening? What do you mean?”
His eyes shift away from mine. “In my previous research, the others only became aware of who they were quite late in the process.”
“Others?” Although I know that there must have been others, this startles me. “There have been others?”
He laughs. “So like a real woman. No, there were none like you, Jenny. But yes, there have been others.”
“What happened to them?”
“What happened to her? Did she fail, too?”
A twinge of pain passes over his face. “In a way, I suppose she did. She died. But let us not talk of death. I have a surprise for you.” He reaches into his pocket and produces two small magnetic cards. “Tickets to Mexico,” he says, picking up my hand and kissing it softly. “Now that you have become a woman, I must start treating you as one. It’s like a new start for us.”
I don’t want to go to Mexico. I don’t want him kissing my hand. And yet, as he smiles at me over the table, something within responds to him, remembers him and sighs.
I know this place. Not just from the picture hanging on the wall in my room. I know it. As I know the hotel room into which we were admitted. As I know the strength of his arms about me and the touch of his lips on mine. As I know the love she felt for him.
Only when I am alone does it happen that I do not love him. Without his charismatic presence I can remember that he is cruel and thoughtless, arrogant and selfish. I remember his temper, his forcefulness; he frightens and confuses me. But then he does not leave me alone much. We are always together. Often, though, as he sleeps next to me, I think of the others. Not as often as I think of her, but they are there, along with her, shadowy figures in the back of my mind. They whisper to me of his anger and the high cost of their failures. “We did not fail ourselves,” they say, “we failed him and that is the same.”
And so we come to the desert. To take pictures, he says. A moonlit picnic, he says. A moment of perfection in an imperfect world.
This has all been done before, I remember with a shock. I have worn this dress for him, danced barefoot in the sand for him. And I know now this is why I have been created. For him to have this moment one more time. He is smiling and laughing and relaxed. And I am happy. I love him. I know that my smile is now her smile.
And yet, it is wrong. I turn to him, where he lies on the blanket, his eyes half-shut, his naked skin glowing in the moonlight. “Richard,” I say, unable to stop the words, hearing the echoes of other voices saying the words in unison, “we cannot go on like this. There must be an end.”
He pushes up on one elbow and stares at me. “What did you say?”
“I want to go home.”
He laughs. “You have no home, other than with me, Jenny. No other purpose in life. I thought you knew that.”
I close my eyes and the memories pour through me, moving my lips, controlling my words. “I have a home. I have children. You do not wish to share in this home. You want me as a trophy, not as a woman. And as much as I love you, I can’t stay. This is wrong.”
I feel a slap across my face and open my eyes.
“Jenny,” he says, “this is not you speaking. You must stop remembering now. Do not fail me in this.”
“I can’t stop remembering.” I begin to cry. “And it is me speaking. I am your Jenny. I am she. And I can’t stay. You know this is true.”
He sighs, gets up from the blanket and begins to put on his clothes. “Yes, it is true. Now close your eyes, Jenny, and remember what always happens next.”
Conditioned to obey, I close my eyes. And remember his large hands fastening around my neck, crushing and bruising. I do not just remember. He is choking me now and I am gasping for breath. “You won’t leave me,” he says, “you can’t leave me.” I hear many versions of his voice saying the same words, over and over. “I’ll see you dead and buried first.” His grip tightens and he lifts me up off my feet. I kick against him feebly, but my limbs grow limp in remembered response. He drops me to the desert sand then and falls to his knees next to me, crying.
“You were right,” he says, “this is wrong. I never want you to die. I keep hoping it will be different. Each new time I keep hoping that you won’t remember. Not this. I never wanted you to remember this. And now you have failed me. The best of them all. And I have to start over again. I can’t help myself. I have to start it all over again.” He packs up the picnic stuff now, putting it all back into its basket. Soon he will leave and I will be alone.
I know that I am to lie still now and let the sand blow over me as the others had before me. After all, I am dead. I remember being dead and I know why I am dead. He has crushed me as he did the moth, as he did her, as he did all the others. They loved him and I loved him. But he has left me alone and I do not love him when I am alone.
I feel a small tickling in the palm of my outstretched hand. I should not feel anything, I am dead. I look over with eyes that should not see and focus on a moth. A beautiful creature, with wings such a delicate green, etched in brown. I smile. And silently I stand, rising to my feet, still cradling the moth. Then I twitch my hand, letting it fly free into the night sky. Knowing as I do so that if the moth lives, so could I and so could she. And I know what I must do, what I was created to do.
“There must be an end,” I say as I walk toward him and my hands grip his throat. “And that end is yours.”
No one will cry at his funeral. There will be no vids of the event, no mention of his passing. No one will know that he is dead. And no one, but the moth and the Mexican moon will know that I, of all of them, did not fail him.
Perhaps I loved him more than I knew.
© Karen E Taylor 2000