See No Evil

Untitled - 4
Illustration by Ashley Potter

SEE NO EVIL

Marina Warner

*

‘That  coffee machine  you ordered  from Rome’s on the dock now, and the man there’s insisting that  you must go down in person,  to be there when they open it, so as to see there’s no jiggery-pokery.’

‘Who’s he?  Put him on the line, Georgina,  and maybe I’ll be able to get it through his thick skull that it’s out of the question.’

‘The  package’s addressed  to  you personally  and  Customs  require that the addressee take delivery. I can’t do it for you, Dr. Earle.’

‘This   country’s  impossible!  Fifteen   people   make  a  parliament, three judges in the whole damn place, and you have to have the whole caboodle as if…?’’

‘Yes, that is the picture.’ Georgina’s voice was tart.

‘Play-acting cadres. It could be Cuba.’

‘In Cuba  they  don’t  have cargo  coming  in from  Rome,  Italy,  Dr Earle. And this is your own native land, and so you can’t be saying you’re outside of it.’

‘Tsk, Georgina.  You know they don’t listen to me.’

‘Huh Uh, Dr Earle.   They  like to see you in town once in a while. And see what you’re going and buying when you’re away from home.’

‘All right, I’ll go down to the harbour  office. Let them know I’m on my way, Georgina.’

‘I’ll find Rob, and he’ll drive you into town.’

‘There things you’ve to do in town, Georgina?

‘Huh Uh, Dr Earle.’

Dr  Diogenes  Earle  could no longer  drive himself: cataracts.  Next time he was in Berkeley for his annual teaching visit, he’d have the op. But he kept  postponing it. The  prognosis  was good  for this  kind  of procedure,  and yet…

His eyes were black as lava pebbles on the surf line, with such a gleam on them that one time long ago, when they were going to a party at the High  Commissioner’s for the Queen’s Birthday or some such date, his wife Evangeline had taken his chin and tilted his head towards hers as they stood in the hall waiting to be announced.  He had thought she was

going to kiss him, but instead she told him to keep still and not blink while she adjusted the angle of her hat in his irises.

The  espresso  machine  of  gleaming  chrome,  with  a gilded  eagle poised for takeoff on its summit crest, had arrived at the docks less than two months  after he ordered  it. He was pleased: the banana boats were efficient carriers, their sailing routes, the same ones that had transported his forebears westwards, were still governed by the world’s turning  and by the alizés, the lovely chasing winds, according to their season.

‘Rob, you think  the coffee machine  from Italy will fit in this car?’ Georgina  asked.

‘We could take the truck…’ Rob looked at her for reassurance  that his decision was justified.  She took charge:

‘Rob’ll drive the truck down for the machine as soon as we’ve seen to all the red tape and fine tuning of the paperwork.’

Then  she opened  the car door,  let herself into the passenger  seat, and nodded towards Diogenes  to indicate he should sit in the back and demur no more.

As the  car  descended  the  slope  towards  the  town  and  the  harbour, Diogenes Earle anticipated with pleasure how he would pass by Peony’s later with Georgina  and they’d have a drink  on the verandah;  maybe dinner there too – the house pepper soup, a spiced fricassée of chicken and vegetables, followed by some coconut  ice cream – though  coconut was one of those lurking devils that leaked into your blood supply and furred it up, goddammit.  Who  would think that pale scented flesh was poisoned with cholesterol?   At Peony’s bar,  La Rose des Vents, Dr Earle would become  Diogenes  again, to everyone,  including  Georgina,  and he could bandy the old badinage with Peony, sparring partner,  old time lover:

‘I’m no nosy parker, but Mamma, tell me why Young white meat have such dark hair down there While old black Theresina’s all snowy white? Heigh ho, ho heigh, Mamma, jus’ tell me why?’

‘The  trouble  is with  the  world  today,’  Dr  Earle,  winner  of  the Braestrup  International Prize  for  Biological Research,  was saying to Peony after he finished laughing (though he had heard it before), ‘is that jokes like this are finished, over, not to be spoken, not to be heard.’

‘Not here, they’re not,’ said Peony. ‘We’ll not be gagged, oh no, not me, not you.’

A calypso king came in and sat down with them; name of Sad Sack, old man with a banjo in his hand and six gold chains thick as gift-wrap ribbon  hanging  against his wrinkled rhino  hide chest. He  was saying,

‘Diogenes, the trouble  is…’ – he called him Diogenes,  as everyone did outside the laboratory  precinct,  from long before he won the big prize and with it global renown – ‘the old languages is dying. Creole,  patois, going going, under the influence of TeeVee Miamee: 32 stations beamed at you and me.’

‘Yes,’ said Dr Earle. ‘I came back to get away from that.’

It was true, too. He used his prestige, his success, his name, his life’s work in immunology  to fund the Centre  in the hills of this Leeward island in the  Caribbean, where,  beyond  the  morne,  in the  middle  of banana and coconut groves stretching  on all sides, he was working with his team on an enzyme that contained the clue, or so he felt sure, to the metabolisation  of HIV into AIDS.

The vervet monkeys whom the lab used had been providing for five years now the basic material for the wonder drug that had the capacity, it seemed from widespread trials, to delay onset of the full-blown virus. In the early mornings when he was a child growing up on the island and waiting for the school bus in the early morning,  the young Diogenes, dressed  by his mother  in  immaculate  shirt  and  shorts  of his school uniform, had glimpsed the monkeys springing in the tangle of the breadfruit  and mangoes and immortelles  that grew in the gullies of the morne.  They  shrieked  and hooted  above, a barely visible syncopation in the foliage.  A mother,  with a young monkey clasped to her breast, would leap from frond to frond,  picking mangoes in the trees for her child, her lovely, clever tail like an interrogation mark over the folding star of her anus. They were quick and educable, too, test creatures with an aptitude to learn from the experiments he conducted.  He loved their small, scholars’ faces, with puckered foreheads and twitching brows, and eyes that revolved as if they were considering  their  miraculous agency in  human  health  with  proper   wonder.    The   Buddhists  were  right, thought Diogenes,  to venerate monkeys’ discretion,  and set them up as counselors, their long narrow subtle fingers clamped to their eyes, their ears, their lips: See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.

The bodies his research would help keep alive required intervention, allopathic stratagems to forestall the spread of disease, and the quietism of otherworldly metaphysical  monkeys could never control  the forces of chemical  and biological  structures  gone  awry, as he and the  team struggled  daily to do in the  lab. The  animals  lay in another  kind of silence on the operating  tables, their wizened hands flopped alongside their paler chests and bellies, their heads thrown back like beach riff raff after a night on home-distilled rum, as the team worked to extract the necessary cellular tissue.  Earle’s thoughts  roamed uneasily as he looked over the company around  the table in La Rose des Vents: Sad Sack and Peony were still doing the dozens. He  caught  a fragment,  and leaned towards her: ‘You, Peony, you have a dirty big mouth…’

‘You’s growed so tall, Doctor  Diogenes Earle! Soon nobody see your face up there, only that haystack of hair up inside your nose.’

She was roaring with laughter.  She knew how to scald him with her tongue;  and to do other  things  with it, too.  But the  thought of that other wearied him, tonight,  for anything that drew attention to his age these days wearied him. The  last honorary  doctorate  had taken him to a big city and another  five-star hotel where the suite they’d given him sported  a bed big enough  for an orgy of six; he’d forgotten  his lens cleaning  fluid and so had gone  out  to the  local all-night  drug  store, where he’d found the object of his need in Aisle # 3 under the direction of a contemptuous pharmacist  in none  too  clean overalls. But before he reached ‘Eye care’ he’d passed under the sign ‘Incontinence’.  There he took  in – without  wanting  to – stacks of nappies  for adults,  sized and graded for absorbency,  in packs larger than babies’ Pampers,  with diagrams  of their  ingenious  fastenings and padding  for extra comfort and lack of odours.

American  TV  had  accustomed  him  to  slim, sweet-voiced,  grey- haired, well-preserved and no doubt pinched and tucked former beauties recounting  their constipation  and haemorrhoids. But the ‘Incontinence’ section sent him back to his luxury suite and all its playthings  in such sad heart  he couldn’t even try the Adult channel  out of curiosity, and instead curled up between the cool and expensive fabric of the sheets on his enormous  bed, feeling that his genitals had shriveled up to the size of slugs and his bowels would shame him if he ever tried to have a fuck again.

His problem was very clear. Women  liked famous men, but access to them became trickier the more visible he became.  As honours  grew, so did wearisome company, with a tendency  to interfere  in the successful outcome  of an attempt  at seduction. If he took Mrs Earle  (Evangeline was most  cordially  included  in all these  invitations),  he  escaped  the terrors  of solitude  in  those  capacious  beds  and  minatory  aisles. But Evangeline did not enjoy travelling any more and would not put up any longer with the tedium of official lunches, dinners and those obligatory visits to colleagues’ labs and research establishments.

Even if a new lover was… well, there could be many disappointments in novelty, he knew. Occasionally a woman could not see him at all but only the  story she could  tell her  colleagues afterwards  about  making out with Dr  Diogenes  Earle.  But even so, the risk, the discovery, the variations, made the attempt  exciting in itself. He was an experimental researcher,  always had been.

Nobody  else heard Peony’s taunt  that evening, or bothered to take it in, but it smarted, and he stared out across the soft blur of darkness to the town lights between the morne and the sea.

He knew that the Italians, on the occasion of his most recent prize, a medal with many thousands  of Euros attached,  would have turned  a blind eye if he’d taken another  woman with him. He could have invited Mignonette, his on-and-off  young lover, who lived in town where he sometimes could visit her if she was feeling like letting him and he could fit it in between  Georgina’s  protectiveness  at the  lab and Evangeline at home.    But he’d gone alone, and he’d ordered  the coffee machine on  an impulse  one  morning  after  he  had  been  wrapped  all night  in memories of Mignonette’s skin and smell, the close silken weave of her flesh and the peach fullness of her lips, above, between, below, and how she whimpered at the suck and stroke of his tongue and how he felt the tips of her nails on his buttocks  where she pulled him deeper into her; in Italy, she might have stopped her objections, which changed daily but couldn’t be gainsaid: his position,  his wife, his other  women,  her age, her future.  He knew enough  about women: Mignonette wanted more from him in return.

Maybe he should offer to divorce Evangeline.

He  and Mignonette were flesh of one flesh, he felt, so close when interlocked  and laced that he thought the sweetness of it might change his outer as well as his inner self, and that he would look in the mirror afterwards and find himself dipped and renewed like one of the oil drums under the hammers of the steel pan makers, polished to a flashing shine and tuned to a ringing  note. He thought that Mignonette even looked like him,  perhaps  through certain  quirks  of shared  ancestry  (a Scots planter  in the shadows?): at a shark sandwich stand on the north  shore one day, Mignonette had been taken for his daughter by the vendor, and he’d felt proud.

He  remembered leaning  over  Mignonette, so close he  could  see into the fibres of her irises; they were smoky-grey with spokes of gold around the dark well of her pupils, dilated in the light of a single bedside lamp; he felt a rush through his heart  and limbs, spearing  him into a five-limbed sea creature, all consciousness blazing in the pleasure at the crossing of his groin; her white bed, with its thin mattress in the small sparely furnished flat in town, hung in his mind’s eye. Maybe he should propose a grand hotel – one of the tourist palaces further up the coast – but you needed to book, it was high season, and besides, he wasn’t sure she would agree, without more assurances from him, to spend the night with him in a place where he would be made a fuss of, clamorously.

He  would phone  her now. He  signalled for the bill, and unfolded some notes and laid them down on top when it came without reading it, waving away the protests of the gathering.  A look shadowed Georgina’s eyes; she was always vigilant, and it both gratified him and annoyed him. He  avoided responding,  yawned, said he was tired,  he had a breakfast meeting  with  a  journalist  from  New  York;  the  company  guffawed, ribbed him, but he rose, smiling, on the gusts of their chaffing. On his way out, he stopped to kiss Peony and throw in extra for more booze for the company to drink after he was gone.

The  next day, he  was meeting  Larry  Sulter,  the  journalist  from  The Washington Post for lunch,  not  breakfast,  and he wanted  to see more of the  island,  and  had  hired  a car, a sporty  red  Japanese model  and wanted to drive it around  himself. On an impulse Diogenes  asked him to pass by Mignonette’s to see if she’d come with them, and she was in a sweet mood, as it turned  out, and quickly tied some light cotton wrap scattered  with tiny stars around  her long limbs, and fastened sky-blue sandals on her narrow feet with their silver nails and ankle bracelet. Just the sight of her, bending over to do this and that, smoothing  herself and nodding  into  the  small mirror  on her  bathroom wall, gave Diogenes Earle the sensation that he’d been grasped by a sky goddess and dipped in a fountain  of Jouvence. He laughed and patted  her on the bottom  as she went through the door, and then she tossed her head crossly, but she did not turn back.

They  took the road out of town to the east shore where the coast was jagged, the rocks fretted  by the Atlantic tiderips  and the coconut palms arched  like the ribs of Gothic  vaulting  in colder  places. Or,  as Diogenes Earle thought privately, like girls throwing their hair about as they thrashed sitting on top of him.

They  stopped  at a crab-and-beer bar on the beach; took seats at a crooked wooden table with a gingham plastic cloth, secured by drawing pins that had rusted in the salt air. Diogenes let himself enjoy the breeze lifting off the sea; the criss-crossing lines of foam chasing up and down the sand like a flame running  rapidly along a fuse laid to a firework. He rarely had the  chance for such an outing  during  the  week, especially now he could no longer drive himself, so he made it hard for Sulter to embark on the interview; besides, Mignonette was communicative,  she had taken charge of him, she was charming the visiting young American, of course.  She’d been going to personal growth therapy; she’d made all kinds of discoveries about herself, it was weird what you could forget or never suspect. It was pleasant to listen to her, almost like standing under the strong  jet of a shower after a hot day; when she was animated,  her eyes seemed to shoot  golden  lights, and she had a way of twisting on herself that  drew attention to her soft in-between-nesses as she sat at the wooden table, occasionally drinking from the melting bottle of beer that had come, frosted, from the icebox whirring to a portable generator under a clump of allamanda at the back behind the shed.

She was saying, how, at the age of fourteen,  she’d been doing her science homework:

‘Shit, my father volunteered  to help and the next thing, there was all this heavy breathing and he was touching me up and putting his hideous hot sweaty hands up my legs…’

Diogenes Earle put down a crab claw.

‘Mignonette,’ he said, ‘You know I dislike a dirty mouth – I think you could spare us the details of this horror.’

She had twisted  differently  coloured  ribbons  in her  hair,  creating cords that she’d then tied at the back on the nape of her neck; Diogenes didn’t altogether grasp the architecture of this new style, and it looked forbidding to the caress of a hand; but it made the narrow column of her neck seem even more slender and her eyes even larger: he was reminded of the way a young vervet turns and stares at a stranger, before burrowing back into its mother’s fur. At that earliest stage, he reflected, the babies had not yet learned to imitate warning signals, the ak-ak-ak of repeated scatterfire telling of the approach of a stranger.

‘That’s just awful.’ Larry Sulter looked flushed, concern crinkled his eyes.

By contrast, Diogenes realized, he had sounded callous. But why was Mignonette bringing  up these things  now, and telling  this American? Things  she had  never  told  him,  her  lover, things  not  to  be bandied about with strangers like so much small talk.

He wanted to cry out, We are lovers, for God’s sake, we have been the  closest two people  on  this  earth  can ever be. He  wanted  to  pin her down against the bed and kiss her throat  and eyes and mouth  and breasts. He wanted to beg her, Don’t appeal to this young hotshot  from Washington with your stories, don’t make monsters of old men like me. You don’t know the power you have over us.

A silence fell, and grew lumpy; the breeze brushed through the palm fronds and seemed to swell. The  journalist looked out pointedly across the beach to where some young boys were playing with a ball; Diogenes signalled for the waiter.

Larry Sulter then put his first question to his subject – as Diogenes knew, it was always at the coffee stage that the real argument was raised. Here,  by the beer and seafood shack on the beach, there was no coffee, but  they  ordered  another  beer  – though  Mignonette, the  same new vacancy in her face, signalled no.

‘What  are you doing about the growing  protests  by animals rights campaigners against your kind of research, Dr Earle?’

Diogenes  pulled himself back from his daydream, closed down the image of the  young  Mignonette stuttering alarm  cries as one  family member  after another  fondled  and molested  her sparse baby fur, and concentrated on the journalist.

‘Oh, we torture  animals, and we smile…’ He bared his teeth. ‘We’re worse than beasts, we’re Mengele and Eichmann and Stalin’s death camp doctors  all rolled into one…’ he broke off, pleasantly enough,  holding his grin.

Diogenes  put his hand on the young man’s tape recorder,  tapped it and said: ‘Turn it on. Is it on now? All right: here is what you are going to hear from me: epilepsy, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, emphysema, asthma – anyone you care about suffer from these conditions?   AIDS? If we can find some ways to forestall  the  fatal consequences  of these illnesses – and not only for the sufferers but for all those around  them who watch them  suffer, while we’re talking turkey, for society and the economy too that have to support  so many sick and failing members  – we hardly expect to find remedies, we’re not into playing God, you do realise, Mr. Sulter – we are perhaps  allowing a child someone loves to grow up as other  children  do, allowing a parent  to survive to bring up his or her offspring,  allowing loved ones to continue  to live together. Monkeys are our brethren, but they are not our children.  And you are welcome to inspect any time to see the operating  conditions  in which my team works. We could use humans – that’s what the Nazis did. If this animal rights stuff continues,  we may have to recruit volunteers: is that something  you desire?’

Mignonette interposed, brightly, ‘Dr Earle had a British education, you know. He is very ironical.’

Diogenes softened the outburst  with another  show of laughing; and called for the waiter.

Then he turned back to the journalist. ‘In truth, we make the animals as comfortable as possible; we’re grateful to them for their collaboration in our endeavours, we respect their role: without them there would never have been the breakthrough we’ve made with the new T-cell inhibitors. We’re not testing shampoo, you know.’

‘This is on me, sir,’ said Sulter.

‘On your paper?’

‘Sure.’

‘Then  you may go ahead and pay,’ said Diogenes  Earle.  He  gave another laugh. ‘We’re all United States colonials now. Everyone waiting on their green card.’

‘You  don’t  know  what  it’s  like,  when  you  haven’t  got  one,’  said

Mignonette. She was still staring straight past him.

He  could  recommend Mignonette for  postgraduate work  in  the States, of course. Then  maybe she would meet him there, stay with him there.  Maybe a drama course?   There were enough  affirmative action initiatives for overseas students still in place.

Two boys scrambled up to the verge and hailed the bright  new car the journalist had hired. They  were skinny, tall, dark brown kids; one held a machete, the other a bunch of coconuts, which he held up and waved into the car’s rear view mirror.

Diogenes,  sitting  sideways on the  back seat, tapped  Larry  to stop the car.

They reversed down the road.

‘Ever had the  milk straight  from  the  nut?’ he asked Larry.  ‘Have some. And for you, Mignonette?’

‘I like the jelly,’ she said. And then to Larry, ‘The soft flesh inside.’

‘If you’ve only had the  dried  kind,  you’ll be surprised,’  Diogenes endorsed her, fishing out coins to give the boys.

The boys ran up, serious but eager; they laid the nuts on the tarmac and slashed them open.

When  asked, they answered that they were brothers; their eyes were round and brilliant, their thin and naked torsos and lanky limbs tensile in strength  in spite of the fragility and narrowness.  Barefoot, in faded cotton  shorts,  they both  rubbed  their  noses on the  heel of their  free hands as Diogenes engaged them in talk. But on their side, it remained scanty; they danced a little on their feet.

Diogenes tipped up the pierced fruit and drank the liquid to the last drop, urging the journalist to do the same.

‘Nectar,’  he  said,  with  a dramatic  sigh  of  contentment. And  he handed  it back to the elder boy to be cut open for the ‘jelly’.  ‘It’s no good for the arteries,  but if you could drink moonlight, it would look and taste like this.’

A jeep in camouflage paint passed them, swinging over to the wrong side of the road to overtake their parked car, then slowed, and began to reverse towards them fast.

‘So, you boys, where’s you getting that big bunch of coconuts?’ The policeman  poked at the younger boy. ‘And you, hand me that machete now.’

‘My auntie’s tree…’ The elder boy tossed his head slowly back towards the forest. ‘In there.’ He had no conviction, and the man shot back, ‘And where in there might be your auntie’s coconut grove?’

Mignonette was standing  with a wedge of the perfumed,  glistening fruit in her hand, frozen in the act of lifting it to her mouth; Larry Sulter was midway through quaffing the lunar milk, and Diogenes  Earle was reaching out to take another  nut from one of the boys.

The  officer went on, placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder:  ‘We’re taking you in.’

Another policeman, with a club stuck through his belt, swung down wide-legged from the jeep, lifted the bunch of greenish-yellow  bearded fruits from the younger child, and hoisted them over his shoulder with a negligent finger.

‘Officer,’ began Diogenes, addressing the first policeman in his crisp uniform with his shiny leather straps and weapons.  ‘We’re responsible. I have  a  visitor  from  Washington  DC,  and  we’ve been  on  a  little sightseeing tour. We were thirsty. I merely wanted to treat him to one of our island’s delicacies. The  children fetched the cocos for us – at my request.  I undertake  to make sure everything  is fine with the… their auntie.’

The second policeman was now pushing the bigger of the two youths towards the jeep.

‘He’s my younger  brother…’  the boy began protesting,  twisting his head to look back at the child standing forlorn now on the verge. ‘I can’t leave him here.’

‘So we’ll take him in, too.’

Diogenes  tried to look casual as he fished in his pocket, pulled out some ID and with it, some US greenbacks, folded underneath, which he slid out unconcernedly, moving closer to the first officer’s gaze.

‘You Dr Earle?’ the man said, with a smile that had no smiling in it. Diogenes nodded, fingering the money.

‘We’re proud of you.’

The officer threw a glance at the American, at the car, at Mignonette, and  calling out  to  them,  said,   ‘Dr Earle  is an example of what this

country can do.’

Diogenes saw that he’d mistaken his man:  this one wanted to put on a show, play the big man with the big men.

‘Let me at least…’ Diogenes  began.  He wanted to say, ‘Come with you to the station,’ but the boys were already bundled  into  the back, their eyes staring through the panes in the doors that closed on them.

‘We’re not ashamed of this country,’ said the policeman, as he secured the rear doors, and swung himself into the driver’s seat.

Diogenes Earle put his wallet away.

In her  flat later  that  evening,  Mignonette was weeping for the  boys; Diogenes  had utterly  failed to help, he’d let them  fall into  the hands of that vicious power freak. It was all his fault; with him around, they’d been conspicuous,  and that jeep was manned  with the only officers on the whole island who wanted to show how the law was the law because of his fucking fame and that journalist from the Post who would have gone back home  and said, Those  islanders’ll never change their  spots. The boys were probably now lying battered  and broken in some filthy cell, terrified  out of their wits at what was still to come… She was sobbing, she was railing at him.

‘Aren’t  you  being   a  little   melodramatic,   my  dear  child?’  said Diogenes. He had been about to take off his trousers. ‘They’ll give them a warning, and then they’ll let them go.’

‘That’s what you say,’ she said, passionately, turning her face into the mattress.

‘Mignonette, my little one,’ he began. He tried to stroke her, but she flinched and pushed her face harder into the mattress.

There was no staying with her longer that night, he could see.

‘I will do something,  I promise,’ he said, letting  himself out, with a glance back at the small, austere room.

He  walked down the hill from her street  to the Hilton,  where he picked up a taxi. He  asked the driver to take him to the Centre.  The man was surprised: ‘You work all hours, Dr. Earle!’

It was nearly midnight.

He let himself in, reassured the security guard with a squeeze on his shoulder.

In  the  lab’s operating  theatre,   one  monkey  was lying  on  a bed, recuperating  from  surgery.  Diogenes   stroked  the  scant  fur  on  the sleeping animal’s belly and checked the screens on which her life systems pulsed in streams of stars.

‘There, there, my beauty,’ he murmured. ‘You’re doing fine.’

Then he put his face next to hers and smelled the mixture of antiseptic and animal heat in the residual warmth of her sleeping existence. Truly, she was all right, this creature with her slender black fingers crooked on her groin and her crinkled face with the lids beseechingly swollen over her eyes. There was another  gurney  lying empty alongside; Diogenes Earle climbed on to it and stretched  out; the vervet being near, he was able to sleep.

*

Marina Warner is a writer of fiction and cultural history. Her family on her father’s side was from the Caribbean, and her publications  include the novel Indigo,  a reworking of The Tempest in a contemporary setting. Her work includes novels and short stories, as well as studies of art, myths, symbols, and fairy tales.