Imaginary Numbers

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The Deer

On the road between Rouen and Beloeuie

Vivienne sat in the waiting room, wearing a hospital gown and draped in the professor’s overcoat. She was fine, but if you looked closely she was still glowing slightly. The staff were working under emergency conditions, with the generators supplying power to the machines. The professor was talking to the doctor, who had politely advised them to return another day, since no further tests could be done without the electricity having been restored.

The professor thanked him and returned to the girl.

“What happened to your clothes?”

“I’m sorry,” she said shyly, “I couldn’t find them in the dark. And the underwear… Well, to be honest, I needed new underwear anyway.” The professor looked at his feet.

“Let’s just return to the hotel. If there is still no power tomorrow, then we could go to investigate the spot where you first made landfall.”

In the car, Vivienne couldn’t stop talking. She was filled with images of family. She chatted about her ideal situation, fantasizing about a husband and having children. The professor listened patiently, considering whether the espresso he had ordered her before they went to the hospital was perhaps too much caffeine.

“I think having children must be such a special experience,” she said elated. “I can’t even imagine making another life. It must be so powerful.” Then she looked at the professor, who was navigating the darkened streets by following the flow of red brake lights. Here and there a few windows were lit up by the flickers of candlelight, but overwhelmingly the moonless night was pitch black. “William, why did you never have kids?”

He kept his eyes on the road. “I suppose, we were both too busy with work. My wife worked for television, so she didn’t like the idea of a nation watching her get fat.” There was a silence as deep as the night. “But you know, I’ve always been interested in making life in other ways.”

“I suppose women are lucky in that we can give birth. That act must be one of the most special things a person can do. I mean, you’d carry the baby around for so long. You’d get used to having two heartbeats. Two souls in one body, you know what I mean? It seems like such a gift.”

“I can imagine.” They left the city, signs lit up by the headlights signaled the edge of urban life, and beyond the margins of Rouen lay only a deep blackness, punctuated by occasional lights of passing cars.

“I sometimes wonder about Christine’s baby. I really wish I could have raised her. That poor girl, she needs someone to take care of her. I just wanted to help her so much. At least I got to hold her.” The professor opened his mouth as if to say something, but then she continued. “Christine. She was a good person. I never got to know her well enough. I’m sure she had quite a story. But I’m sure she’d be happy that her baby is still alive. I mean, in some way she’s served her biological purpose. She’s living on, despite her physical death.”

“That’s true.” They were silent for a while, hypnotized by the repetition of the broken white lines in the middle of the road.

“How old do you think I am?” The professor regarded her: a face of wonderful angles in profile.

“It’s hard to say. I’d wager you were between 25 and 35. I want to say closer to 25, but people of mixed ethnicity often look younger than they are.”

“Do you think I am mixed?”

“Everyone who’s met you think something else. The woman in the clothing store asked if you were Indian. Armand believes you are Lebanese, or Middle Eastern. The doctor at the hospital expected you to be from Indonesia. So, it’s hard to come to any consensus because you have characteristics of almost every race.”

“That makes me happy.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, if my parents are of different races, then I can easily imagine some delightful love story that transcends culture. I can see them arriving at each other though a series of unrelated co-incidences, that lead up to a single glance. Like two people from different worlds falling in love despite geography, culture, and even their languages.” She sighed. “I want that kind of love, you know? A sense of knowing that you are meant for each other. Meant to be together, to have children and to grow old together.”

“I’m afraid that more often than not, love is not like that.”

“Come on, professor. Are you saying you never fell in love with your ex-wife like that? Why marry her if you didn’t want to be together for ever?”

“That, my dear, is a tough question.” Even the passing cars become scarce, and the bright stars reflected off the hood of the Citroën. “I still love Isabelle. Perhaps I always will. I think about her frequently. I never expected that we would divorce, and some times I feel like she is still very much part of my life. I see her a lot.”

“You do?”

“Well, perhaps that is an inaccurate statement. I do see her a lot. On the news. She is an anchor. We rarely speak anymore, but she will forever be in my thoughts.” Vivienne placed her hand on his knee. They made eye contact, and she smiled both sympathetic and encouraging. “We did consider having a child. In fact, she was pregnant before we got divorced. Her pregnancy became an issue we discussed a lot. We argued a lot because she wasn’t ready to have a child. Perhaps she never will be ready.”

“What happened?”

“She had a miscarriage.” He gripped both hands tightly on the wheel, knuckles turning white from the pressure. “It effectively brought an end to our dying relationship. We realised we could never have a family. And I focussed devoutly on my work, trying to create life in other ways. Artificial ways.”

“You’re a good man. You deserve a family.” She squeezed his knee. He looked over at her and smiled. In that brief moment, he gathered that she felt like a being out of time and place, someone trapped in the liminal space between lives. Looking into her eyes he recognized her desire to be normal, to live a life of love and peace, to grow old as the tree supporting a new generation of branches.

When his eyes returned to the road, as if a spotlight thrown suddenly onto an actor leaping from the wings of a stage, it illuminated the tawny body of a large stag. The professor hit the brakes hard, and the car skidded forward, colliding with the beast. The otherwise still night was broken by Vivienne’s high-pitched shriek. There was a loud thump, and an icy cracking as the windshield fragmented under the weight of the deer. The impact resonated inside them, and was felt across the passenger door. All around them was the smell of burnt rubber.

When the car came to a halt, Vivienne was crying.

“I didn’t see it. Dio mio.” He unclasped his seat belt, and stepped out into the dark night. About one-hundred feet behind the car, bathed in the flashing red lights, lay the body of a large stag. The professor walked around the car, surveying the damage. The passenger side light was completely broken, a stabbed out mechanical eye—a tuft of sandy fur lodged in the sharp cracks of plastic. The front of the car was destroyed, and the passenger side severely dented. The professor heard Vivienne trying to open her door, but nothing happened. He pulled from the outside, but the door was stuck. As Dr. Borgiac walked into the night towards the deer, Vivienne scooted over and emerged from the driver-side door.

The large body lay in the middle of the road. It was a mound of dead flesh and hair. Although it was incredibly dark, he knew it was dead because the tiny beads of red light reflected ceaselessly off the glassy eye, which stared forever upwards at the celestial sphere. There was no blood on the ground, but when the professor touched the animal’s snout, he felt the hot, wetness sticky on his hands.

Behind him he heard the hysterical sobbing of the girl that fell from the sky. The twhwip thwap of her cheap hospital slippers against the asphalt signaled her presence.

“It’s dead.” The girl started weeping uncontrollably, and the professor stood up, facing her. He embraced her, feeling her contracting lungs and wet cheek against his neck. She wrapped her arms around him and held tight. It had been a long time since he has held a women like that. Through the thin hospital gown, he could feel her ribs and the muscles in her back, a strong deep symmetry line along the spine.

“It’s okay,” he said and put his hand on her head, feeling her smooth, cool hair. “Don’t worry. It’ll all be okay. It just came out of nowhere.” He felt her shaking, and a faint heartbeat through the sobbing. He felt what she felt: an incredible sadness for the loss of an innocent life. She was contagious.

“I can’t believe I killed such a big creature.”

They stood there, two humans wrapped together in sorrow, in the darkest night, far away from any watchful eye. Alone.

Then Vivienne pulled herself away from the professor’s warm body. She crouched down in front of the animal and looked into the reflective eye. She wiped tears off her cheeks, and sniffed her nose.

“It can’t be dead,” she said. “It’s so beautiful. It looks too peaceful to be dead.”

She petted the side of the animal’s head, rubbing her hand from behind its ear along its jugular vein. It was still warm. She placed her other hand on the deer’s head, between the antlers.

In the darkness, Vivienne’s hands started to glow. At first it was a faint blue-ish tone that seemed like a natural extension of the night—some kind of phosphorescent fairy-fire that appears in the absence of moonlight. But after a minute of her caressing the carcass, it became clear that her hands were emanating a præternatural light.

“Vivienne,” the professor muttered, mesmerized by the radiation, which was turning her fingers translucent. Soon the deer started glowing as well. In the middle of the road the animal’s body was gaining potency, growing from a blue to a white brighter than any artificial light. The professor shielded his eyes and noticed Vivienne’s shadow cast over the road, a long assemblage of spindly appendages. The vertical outline of trees beside the road was visible, but at the epicentre beneath her hands there was a miniature sun, shining bright enough to turn night into day.

The Professor squinted, and fought his natural instinct to see what’s happening. He turned his back, watching Vivienne’s shadow, which was soon joined by four parallel legs everlasting and a single unambiguous snorting sound made by the deer. In the intolerable brightness, hooves beat a tattoo on the road, and as the light faded away, the animal paused, momentarily lit only by the dull, flashing red light of the car before it, it leapt back into the forrest, white tail raised into the air—the only sight the professor witnessed empirically.

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