Diana George


Ziller's cook left a note next to his breakfast: "You have set that child above me for the last time." It rained all spring after she quit. Carp thrashed on the lawn. At the back of the house, rain poured in the open frame of the half-built addition. Knots rose from the buckling floorboards; blue-black spalting grew more starkly visible on the struts and timbers, like ink rising from a submerged newspaper. Ziller had the remaining servant, Marva, saw notches in the addition's doorsill and sweep the water out.

Ziller had Marva take over the cooking. Mornings, she served a grain paste with a dark syrup spooned over it. Midday, a cutlet with that same syrup pooling and congealing on top. Evenings she made whatever Ziller requested, but never to Ziller's liking. The roast was fibrous, the curds too salty. There was nothing to drink at table unless Ziller asked for it. Ziller let it be known, again and again, that he possessed a minor fortune his father had made in "afformative emulsifiers," and that the child, though adopted, and despite its obvious shortcomings, was his presumptive heir. And that both man and child deserved better than this. Marva would nod, as if comprehension had dawned and reform instilled itself, but the next day's meals would be just the same.

Rainwater seeped into the dining room from Ziller's half-built addition, mildewing the carpets and softening the plaster. The child picked at the damp plaster and ate it. It would not stop for threats or slaps. Left to its own devices, the child would eat its fill of plaster and go tearing around without any clothes on. The dining room had to be abandoned. Ziller had Marva lock the dining room door to keep the child from eating any more of Ziller's house.

Nights, alone in the dark, Ziller liked to explain himself: his plans for the child, his reasons for having procured it. "I am not a scientist," he would begin. "I am not a priest," he would add. Beneath the bedcovers he shrugged his shoulders for emphasis. Sometimes he stayed up late into the night, abjuring and gesturing, his heart the while yawing between pride and abnegation.

In dreams, Ziller sat in the back of a sedan whose driver he did not know. Ziller turned and leaned his forehead against the window. His breath condensed on the glass. Darkness rushed by outside.



Summer came to House Ziller. The waters receded. The half-built addition took on a new grandeur in the sunlight; bare timbers and open roof suggested a lighter, tauter, more complex structure than was actually taking shape. Ziller had built modestly, on the outskirts of town. The grounds were vast by local standards, but Ziller had made no improvements: no grottos or gardens or vistas, no tennis court or swimming pool. If any attention had been paid to sightlines, then only to sink Ziller's house into a sort of dry swale, a depression that made Ziller's house unnoticeable until you were upon it.

Over the summer, Marva's obstinacy gave way to laxity, a laxity that expressed itself not in shirking labors but in acceding to them. She hewed more closely to Ziller's suggestions concerning her menus and her tableside manner. The meat was no longer leathery, but toothsome; the midday syrup was replaced by proper and varied sauces: reductions, béchamels, veloutés. On her own initiative she fashioned centerpieces of grasses and berries, and even, once, on leashes of sateen ribbon, a brace of toads whose warty gravitas lent the table an uncommon elegance, even after they'd peed on the damask.

Having conquered kitchen and dining room, Marva took up child-care duties the former cook had balked at. "Chafe its tiny limbs well," Ziller told her. "It would be unseemly for me to do so," Ziller explained. Trussed, oiled, glistening, the child fretted under Marva's hands.

Such was the schedule of trussings, oilings, glistenings, chafings, and frettings, and such the difficulty, between times, of capturing the child, that Marva's newly improved cooking rapidly suffered, declined, and then ceased. By late August, Ziller and child were reduced to standing at the kitchen sink and gorging cheerlessly on packaged cakes and cold beans. As a last remaining concession to table culture, these gorgings took place three times a day, every day, and so added to the pressure on Marva to regularly capture and produce the child. Without telling Ziller, Marva came upon the expedient of keeping the child leashed to her by its ankle, but she was soon found out. "You will hinder the child's formation," Ziller explained. But he left the severed leash to trail behind the child and so improve Marva's chances of catching it again.

The child delighted in the half-built addition. It clambered up the frame like a sailor amid the riggings. The child drummed its heels on the roof beams and hooted at the sky. It raced back up to the rooftop at every opportunity, eluding capture, taking its meals on the sly. The schedule of trussings, too, went to ruin.

Ziller had to intervene, though not for the sake of the schedule. The child's pleasure rankled; Ziller had neither induced nor granted it. When Ziller came to the kitchen now, he looked pale and haggard; he could not gorge or scarcely even swallow. Alone in his bedroom at night, Ziller sensed the corrosive fact of the child's pleasure. Posterity knew all about the drumming of the child's heels on the rooftop, and posterity's applause for Ziller took on a none-too-subtle derision.

Starving the child down was hard work for Ziller and Marva—watching in shifts, being started awake by the child's piss raining down on them. As soon as they'd recaptured the child at last, Ziller had the addition's walls and roof laid on immediately. The better to seal off the child's access to its aerie. With workmen coming and going, Marva was allowed to keep the child tethered to herself provided they both kept out of sight. It would not do to be discovered now, to have the plans for the child stopped or even scrutinized at this time. No sooner was the plywood on than Ziller called a halt to construction once again. Contractor and workmen were dismissed. Still only partially built, lacking trim or finishing but at last fully enclosed, the addition was now no more enticing to the child than any other part of the house, and so it resumed picking disconsolately at plaster too dry and scant to make a meal of.

During the long days it had taken to starve the child from its perch, Ziller had grown curious about the vantage point the child enjoyed from up there. With an augur and a keyhole saw Ziller now set about cutting a skylight into the roof decking. His arm shook with fatigue. He deviated from his penciled outline, the better to get the task over with, and he ended his labors with a jagged hole in the addition's roof. Scraping his ears only a little, he could just fit his head through the hole. He spent agreeable hours this way, his body perched on the ladder below, minding itself as in another world on other business, while, chin on rooftop, his sovereign head gazed all about.

One day, Ziller saw the child capering in the near distance, just at the edge of that dell or depression in which Ziller's house stood. Marva had tethered the child to a stake in the ground while she sunned herself. The child leapt and twisted, a fish on a hook.

"Everything speaks," Ziller said to his rooftop, his blind hands gesturing below.

Ziller used to say much the same to the cook, before she up and quit. He had married the cook, after a fashion, Ziller's fashion, having explained that a traditional so-called marriage would hamper the unfolding of his project with the child. During the marriage of Ziller and cook, the cook continued to work days, while, nights, Ziller let himself go with her, after Ziller's fashion, talking all the while. The motions of the cook, the disposition of her limbs, her every initiative and acquiescence, all were anticipated and redoubled in Ziller's words. After their exertions, Ziller liked to recollect himself to himself by telling the cook of his project concerning the child.

"The child's every contortion speaks," he'd told the cook. Its jerks and fits, its disordered grimaces, all its motions, however spastic, manifested the subtle, fleeting, contradictory movements of spirit. Why leave such testimony to chance, to the accident of a child's wishes and motives? Let Ziller speak here, through the creature; let all such speech be Ziller's. Let speech equal Ziller, not because Ziller alone is God, but because he is no less God than is the child. Ziller was not a judge of souls. A sage, perhaps, yes, if you insist, yes, but not a judge. The most fearsome prophet is not the one who condemns without mercy, who declares these damned and these redeemed. If anything, Ziller explained, Ziller knew himself to be this: the prophet of indifference. Election universal, and the preterit an empty set. A paradise identical to this earth, unchanged, irremediable.

Listening, the cook had smoothed Ziller's damp brow. The cook trailed her fingertips along Ziller's torso. She attempted to recommence ministrations of the sort she and Ziller had just left off. Without Ziller's ordering words, though, her motions came to nothing.

"We no longer need the cook," Ziller said now to the addition's rooftop. Below, Ziller's meaty hands described something in the empty air: a face or heart.