The Boiler

David Hollander

KUTYA 

(excerpted from the novel-in-progress, Anthropica)

At a very early age the boy had discovered the problem of causal determinism and renounced any lingering affection for the grim ontology through which he toiled. He had been standing on the bridge that led from his family’s farmstead on the outskirts of Kecel, Hungary, to the town itself some three miles distant. These were hard times for his family, who in many respects lived as if it were 1872, not 1972. They did not, for instance, own an automobile. The boy had never seen a television. One night a week he was permitted to listen to the live music broadcasts on Hungarian Radio; his father thought electricity had a whiff of evil about it and so wandered the farmhouse after dark holding aloft a candelabra and emptying the mousetraps of their bloodless and twisted quarry. They were farmers but their profit margins were so narrow that it was often the case that either there was food to eat or there was money to continue producing food to eat, a harsh irony that had not failed to register on the boy. Oftentimes he would work long days beside his father before devouring a small meal of barley soup and sugar beets. He would lie awake at night on his straw mattress with his belly twisted in hunger and a cold draft hissing through the seams of a house built some hundred years earlier to prolong the brutish and short lives of peasants during the monarchy. If the house had a soul, it was a masochistic soul that savored every pain and lived only to spite the bitter earth that was eager to swallow it whole. Lately the boy’s sleep had been frequently interrupted by his infant sister’s shrill bleating, though the baby had been dead for many months. Maybe the house was now haunted by her tiny ghost or maybe the cries ascended from the boy’s dreams or maybe the rats had again overtaken the barn to nibble on the soft ankle flesh of adolescent sheep. His father often lamented that they had been better off under Kadar but the boy only understood the political realities of his nation vaguely and skantwise. They were on their own, he knew, and that did not seem very good—but it didn’t exactly require an enormous feat of the imagination to conceive of something far, far worse. The bridge was maybe thirty meters across and constructed of wide-plank cottonwood and it spanned the narrowest part of the river which in midsummer withered to a mere trickle but right now, in late fall, ran clear and fast. Mulberry trees provided shade at either end of the bridge but at the center of the span (where he now stood) the sunlight was warm and prickly and tasted vaguely of copper. He clutched a tangle of mulberry leaves in his left fist, releasing them over the railing one at a time to watch the clumsy spiraling descent enter suddenly into a controlled rush downstream. The stream’s clarity was such that this change in speed and bearing was the only indication that the leaves had in fact touched down.

There was a bend in the waterway about twenty yards beyond the bridge and he tried to determine whether any given leaf would round that bend and remain adrift, or be ensnared by the eddy of leaves and other debris accumulating there at the elbow. He was running maybe a 75% success rate. Roughly two of every three leaves undertook easily extrapolated routes, but the outlying cases—which neither hugged the interior tight nor rushed clearly toward safety—challenged the boy’s powers of intuition in a way that made his entire body tingle. He felt in some strange, almost religious way that his guessing must have some effect on the outcome; when he was right it was because he made it happen the way he guessed, and when he was wrong… well, he must not have been concentrating hard enough. He was a strange boy, or so his father often said after hours from within the wicked glow of the candelabra, musing quietly aloud as if he (the boy) were incapable of understanding human language. The mulberries grew crookedly from the banks and traced an image for the boy of the old arthritic sheepdog they’d put down not three weeks earlier. The blast of his father’s shotgun had resounded out across the steppes to make its way around the earth and when his father returned to the house the boy thought that he had perhaps been crying, which was no more unprecedented on planet Earth than teleportation or the resurrection of the dead. His father had not cried even when his baby girl finally perished with a fever so intense that hours after death the body still emanated warmth. They buried her out behind the two rusted and retired horse ploughs (they did have motorized farm equipment, though his father had apparently resisted it for many long and unreasonable years), where the earth was softer and where they could embed the little molar-shaped stone etched with her name and the dates and the blessing. The boy himself would dig the hole for the dog (which had been called “Kutya”) not 15 meters from that stone. He, too, had loved the dog in a way he had not loved the baby, because the baby ought to have been stillborn (so said the doctor) and there was never any hope for her and both he and his father kept their distance and allowed Mother to revel in her grief unfettered by theirs, whereas the boy had often curled up on the kitchen’s stone floor and told Kutya adventure stories of his (i.e., the boy’s) imagined life as a world traveler and protector of the meek and had made of the dog a friend and companion. The boy was supposed to be on his way to town right now for flour and sugar and coffee but the leaves were a problem he could not surrender. He dropped another. It was an easy one—bearing hard left and toward the clear water. A question posed itself: Was it already decided whether or not the next leaf, the one still clutched in his fist, would safely clear the bend? Or whether or not he would drop the next leaf at all?

In the time it took to blink an explosion of thoughts left bright shrapnel throbbing in his skull. Has his sister asked to die? No, she’d been taken. Had he asked to be born? No, he’d been birthed, and then the world had gone to work on him. Certain lessons were received. A hand on a stove taught “hot”; a slap on a wrist taught “no”; a dark closet taught “do not test us.” He was becoming something new at every moment, but it had nothing to do with him. If all the inputs had been different—if grabbing a meringue from a countertop had resulted in laughter rather than punishment, if crying in his room had been met with consolation rather than abuse, if his father were motivated by pleasure rather than fear, then the manipulated object—in this case him—would be different, too. But wait… if this were true of him then it was also true of the inputs one level up. His father’s suspiciousness, his mother’s stoicism and quiet grief, his sister’s tortured wailing, these were the products of other inputs that were received like-it-or-not. The infinite cascade implied in this reasoning occurred instantaneously. No one chose to be the way they were. He stood on the bridge and held leaves in his sweaty fist and the light flowed around him like a second and more sublime river and the breeze tussled his dark hair. He had not chosen this. The inputs led here. There were only inputs… they went on and on and on. He thought of Kutya leaping through a pigsty with an absurd and unfounded joy that had roused a boom of laughter from his father’s enormous lungs. This tableau and all of its intricacies—the tusk of spittle hanging from Kutya’s jaws, the black shadow of the feed trough, the iron weather vane atop the barn pointing northward, one enormous sow raising her snout and growling, the dust kicked up into a funnel as if Kutya were in the business of raising demons—this entire collection of inputs arrived to his small brain because it had to. The world was encoded but we could never know the code. Everything was finished before the fact. A bead of sweat achieved critical mass and broke like a ball bearing down the boy’s temple and onto his cheek. He blinked.

But so if it was true that his decision to play the game with the leaves (and, naturally, his decision to now think about the decision to play the game with the leaves, and so on ad infinitum) had been determined by a massive, innumerable collection of past inputs and if those inputs had been similarly rendered necessary by those further past, then, the boy wondered, how was it true that he was somebody?

He was nine years old and all at once, the world became impregnable to his will. He was not a free-roaming creature but a ball on a track, and the track would lead wherever it was always going to lead regardless (or because?) of the fact of his so-called existence. Whatever was going to happen would happen! If God was light, then this new revelation was the air through which God moved. The feeling he had on the cusp of every decision, the tingle of what he’d always thought of as free will, was itself absorbed into the larger substructure of a universe totally determined by first conditions.

So maybe he would jump from the bridge?

Just ten minutes earlier the thought would have been (as the saying went) unthinkable, and yet from this new position he realized—among countless other realizations percolating liquid-like through his skull—that every thought was unthinkable right up until the moment it was destined to be thought, so that the boy on the bridge asking the question “Will I jump from this bridge?” was always as inevitable as the boy jumping (or not jumping) from the bridge had been or now was, regardless of how likely or unlikely either eventuality might seem from a purely objective standpoint which of course was not something possible (i.e., objectivity) for humans who had no greater access to the necessary course the universe would take than a squirrel or chicken. A tiny, fast-receding part of himself was tempted to believe that jumping would somehow release him from the causal chain, as if the universe had decided he should not jump and he might spite its certainty, but no… if jumping was in the cards he would jump. He squeezed the remaining mulberry leaves in his fist and felt their cell walls crack and ooze chlorophyll into his dark palm. He opened his fist and a few shreds fell to the bridge planks while others remained affixed to his moist skin. He lifted a knee to the railing and pulled himself up and sat on his ass on the cold, dry beam with his legs swinging out and back above the river. Clouds fanned out high above the steppes, shaped like radio waves. He listened hard for their music but nothing came. If he was going to jump he would! Nothing could stop it and nothing could make it happen. Their farm was failing; their bellies were empty; his sister’s tiny body was rotting in the earth; Kutya’s favorite toy, a ball made of old kitchen rags and bound tight with tape, remained lodged beneath the pine boards at the threshold to the barn and it would remain there until somebody or something moved it. He and his father and his mother would all die, too, and the moment of each of these deaths was prearranged by what he couldn’t really call God anymore because God had been That Which Intervenes and he now needed a new word, something for That Which Made Intervention Impossible. He put his feet down on the several inches of planking that protruded beyond the railing. It was maybe twenty-five or thirty feet down. The water was crystal clear and, he imagined, very cold. It didn’t seem like a fall that could kill a person. Pebbles along the bottom gleamed, each intricately streaked with a pattern unique to itself. The stones were arranged exactly how they had to be. He thought, Now is when I jump. His arms extended out along the railing and his outstretched fingers dug in beneath the board. The universe itself had a shelf life that was also predetermined. It would burn out. How did he know this? He was only nine years old but he knew it. “Now is when I jump,” he said. He gripped the railing. He counted to three. He had only held his baby sister once and she had curled into him, sucking a thumb no bigger than a raisin. She was released now from the cold machinery of space and time. He leaned forward in his cage. He counted again to three. The wind, the sun, the sublime whisper of the running stream. Now is when I jump.

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David Hollander is the author of the novel L.I.E., a finalist for the NYPL Young Lions Award. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous print and online forums, including McSweeney’s, Post Road, The New York Times Magazine, Poets & Writers, The Collagist, Unsaid, The Black Warrior Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and Swink. His work has been adapted for film and frequently anthologized, most notably in Best American Fantasy 2 and 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11th.