I’m driving on one of those dark, peculiar backroads in upstate New York, coming back from a land-development community meeting, when I hit something in the road. The car skids a little, after the thump, and as I screech it to a stop. I don’t kill things deliberately so I’m really shook up. The meeting was annoying. It went really badly. Some crappy owl everyone’s giving me a hard time about. I can’t help wondering: Don’t people know what owls are really like? They’re not wise and genial, that’s for sure. They’re vicious little predators. They’re creepy, and they eat friendly cats, and other pets. They’ll eat those stupid shrimp dogs people like if they get a chance. Whomp, and it’s digesting in the owl’s stomach, still yapping. Chihuahua munchies. They’re nasty reptiles hiding under feathers, wearing big round eyes like makeup. Fucking dwarf alligators packing wings, that’s what they really are.
So like I’m booed at the community meeting after I say this stuff. Without the “fucking” I mean. I guess I lost it. Then someone, some upstate hick, is yelling “Down with cats,” whatever that means. Or maybe what he said was “Down with fat cats.” I keep obsessively running over the whole shitty episode in my head as I drive, making up better endings each time, ones where I say the magic words into the microphone, some words or other, and everyone’s riveted. And convinced. That’s when I hit something on the road.
I get out of the car, pissed at the way my fantasy life gets out of hand whenever I’m driving, hoping whatever I hit isn’t an attractive collie or fox. Instead, this is an awful shock, I’ve hit a little man.
I almost think “what looks like a little man.” But there’s no what-looks-like involved here: It is a little man, about three feet tall, and he’s groaning in evident pain, perhaps not even conscious. I’m thinking “hobbit” or “homo floresiensis” or ebu gogo. I’m also thinking: Do it! Get back in the car. Hit and run like all the other subwits who live around here. No streetlights for miles, no civilization. Hightail it out of Dodge. Now.
But the better part of me won’t let me do that. He looks so innocent and hurt. I always rescue stray kittens against my better judgment too. Especially after I’ve crushed someone in a business deal. What to do? You’re not supposed to move injured people, I know. But I move him anyway. No way I’m dealing with the police around here, the local judiciary full of people with all the legal smarts of the typical high school dropout, brimming with dark yokel resentment and big-city envy, always looking for out-of-town targets like me with nice cars who have just accidentally hit one of their demented inbred relatives. Better to pack him into the backseat, wrap an old towel around him, gently lay his head against the nice leather armrest, and get going fast.
I think you’ve got a genuine elf there, Doctor Jack says to me, as he needles the unconscious little man’s arm. Uh-huh, I say back, you’ve been watching too much TV. Get out a little, see sunshine again. Stop it with all the channel surfing. Marry a second time. Or visit some prostitutes. Do something to clear your head.
Elf. More likely midget from a circus, I explain. Don’t let the clothes he’s wearing fool you, I tell Doctor Jack, those silly shoes with the curled-up toes, that dumb little waistcoat with those large buttons, magic symbols on them. No magic, just trickery. Barnum and Bally. (That’s a joke: Bally involves gambling, taking money from people, one way or the other.) This is the real world, I tell him. Magic died out a long time ago. And nature’s next. Cement is coming. Cement is going to be really big and really everywhere. You watch. Pave the world, and watch it go round even faster.
Doctor Jack rolls his eyes at me. He’s a neighbor. And a doctor. And he owes me big time. Nora wanted the little guy out of the house and into a hospital right away. She was kind of hysterical about it. She’s very nervous about lawsuits. She insisted on the prenup even though I’ve got all the money. But Doctor Jack lives nearby in a place I got him and he’s always able to soothe Nora. Bird flu. That’s all she thinks about nowadays. Bird flu.
He’s awake at last. How do you feel, little guy? I ask him. I almost say, “cute little guy.” I’m having such a strange complex emotional reaction here, a combination of concern, even some love, plenty of guilt, and it’s all combined with an unavoidable attitude of superiority, a kind of friendly condescension toward someone who really can’t take care of himself, who is so clearly inviting others to take care of him instead. He’s so innocent-looking, so obviously open to being exploited. That’s what he looks like. You can see it in his face, those big, round blue eyes, how he openly reacts to everything he hears. This is definitely someone you want sitting across from you when you play poker.
It’s mid-morning. I should be at my office, but instead I’m sitting by the little guy’s bed with Doctor Jack and with Clarissa, my daughter. She should be on her way to school but I guess it’s a special occasion. It’s not every day that Dad attempts homicide by car accident. Nora is avoiding the whole thing. I doubt she’s still asleep like she’s pretending to be. So what do you do? Doctor Jack asks. The little guy looks at him. You know, for a living, Doctor Jack says. I give him a you-must-be-kidding look. First thing after a patient regains consciousness, Doctor Jack tries to embarrass him. Bedside manners.
The little guy doesn’t say anything. You’re from Ireland, right? Doctor Jack says. I hear there’s a lot of biotech in Ireland. I wouldn’t know about that, the little guy says. I’m in a different line of work you might say. Uh-huh, Doctor Jack says. There’s another big pause. I’m a leprechaun, the little guy says finally, Conachail Fiodh Dubhthaigh at your service. Right. As if anyone else in the room could pronounce that. He’s not well in the head, I think. Just my luck. The important question is, was he unwell in the head before the accident.
A leprechaun, Doctor Jack says, something dawning in him, slowly, as it always does. Hey, he asks after a moment, does that mean that you sort of like give people
A leprechaun, Doctor Jack says, something dawning in him, slowly, as it always does. Hey, he asks after a moment, does that mean that you sort of like give people free stuff if they ask for it?
free stuff if they ask for it? I guess, Conachail Fiodh Dubhthaigh says, puzzled by what Doctor Jack’s just said. This leprechaun clearly hasn’t been around the block very much. Oh wow, my greedy daughter chimes in right away. There’s a whole lot of stuff that I want. It’s about luck, the leprechaun says, I give away luck. And it doesn’t always turn out like you expect. Clarissa isn’t listening. She usually isn’t. Give Peggy Gombrowiscz some fresh acne, she says, her voice full of enthusiasm and joy. You have to forgive Clarissa, I think to myself as I look up at the ceiling. She’s got I-was-blond-as-a-small-child syndrome. She thinks her hair is mousey-colored now. And it is. In another year she’ll be fully adolescent, and there’ll be no stopping it. Her hair will be dyed whatever. Purple, green, something that glows in the dark. Something that gives people who get too close radiation burns. And she’ll have tattoos all over her face, and her ears will be surgically foreshortened to look like something elves would wear. I can’t wait.
Well, I can’t do that exactly, Conachail says after a long pause, but maybe something else you’ll like? What? What? Clarissa demands. It’s a surprise, he says. My requests are going to be a lot more reasonable, Doctor Jack assures him gently.
After Clarissa’s pens all turn to gold, Nora overcomes her distaste and starts talking to him. They’re the real thing, Nora tells me a couple of days later, in bed where we should be doing something else. I dropped one off at the jewelers’ to check. They’re solid, even the ink is gold. We’ve got to do something with them. Somebody’s going to break into the house and try to steal them. Tie us up and rape us while they’re at it. I can’t keep Clarissa quiet about them. She thinks they belong to her. I don’t think that’s an Irish accent, I say back. He’s been giving me advice about Marsha, Nora responds to me. Marsha, I say. You know, her marriage is in trouble. Since her surgery. Her new nose. James doesn’t like her new nose. Oh right, I say. And Conachail gives really good advice, she tells me. Like what? I ask. It’s hard to put into words, she says, but good advice always is. Patience is a virtue. The light at the end of the tunnel. That sort of thing. The accent helps a lot, his tone of voice, the way his eyes look deep into your eyes. I really like him, I say, but this pen thing, it’s just a cheap magician’s trick. And that’s not an Irish accent he’s got. Advice you can’t put into words but that sounds like clichés when you do. Smells like a con to me. I’d throw him out on his ass if I wasn’t worried about a lawsuit. I’ve got to talk to him about signing some papers. After I get back from this trip. You done monologuing? Nora asks me. Okay, I say. How would you know what a real Irish accent sounds like? she tells me. It’s not like on television, that’s for sure. You always worry about lawsuits, I tell Nora. What’s changed?
It’s officially a two-week business trip that I have to take. Sometimes it’s really a business trip and in the evenings I watch television in the hotel room in the airport in Bangladesh or somewhere else equally appalling. Other times I’m fooling around on Nora and actually having a good time. In either case, I go away and come back, and nothing’s changed much at home. Not this time. Things have changed, Nora tells me in the doorway of my house. Before I’ve even gotten in. Eh? I say. We’ve got to get this cleared up right away, she says. Okay, I say. I don’t like the sound of what’s coming. Different rooms, she tells me. We’ve got to sleep in separate rooms.
I hope you’re okay with that. Why would I be okay with that? I say. I can move out of the room or you can move out of the room, she says, I’m willing to be civilized about it. There are a lot of rooms to choose from. This is a big house. Enough to share. Are you okay? I ask Nora. I’m fine, she says, why are you asking me that? I don’t know, I say, you seem, I don’t know, totally obsessed with something. Kind of desperate.
You’re not going to like what’s going on, Clarissa tells me. Um? I say. Maybe you want to stay in a hotel, she says, I know I would if I were you. Something you’re not telling me? I ask. I’m just the child here, she says, I can’t get in the middle of this. I’m supposed to lie low and see a therapist when things like this happen. When things like what happen? I ask. She starts text-messaging a friend. She doesn’t respond to me.
The novelist Anthony Burgess apparently surprised his wife in bed with someone else. He didn’t murder her or the other guy. He went to a bar and had a few drinks instead. I’m doing the same thing later that night but it’s not helping. The bartender is a young guy who actually is Irish. He’s got a real accent. Tell me about leprechauns, I say to him as he puts the drink down in front of me. Why would I know anything about leprechauns? he asks me. Ask me about biotech instead, he adds, I know a shitload about biotech.
I don’t respond to him. I can’t respond to him. Playing in my head over and over is something I saw only a half hour earlier. I’d heard moaning, like Nora was in pain. Nothing I’d ever heard before. I surprise them: she’s naked, lying on her back, and the naked little man is straddling her around her middle like a cowboy on a horse. The room lights are on. Nothing romantic about what they’re doing. Nora’s eyes are rolling back into her head, and she’s moaning like she’s fucking God or something. Hey, I shout, this is really ugly.
These images are things I have to get out of my head. But how do I do that? I’m talking aloud to myself. The bartender is looking at me. I haven’t explained to him what I’m talking about, or why I’m talking to myself. How am I supposed to do that?
I can’t murder him in my house, that’s what I realized.
She couldn’t wait until I was asleep. She couldn’t wait long enough to even try to hide it from me, to do it secretly in a hotel like I do. She couldn’t wait to do it again. Whether I was in the house or not. That was what she was so obsessed about.
Things happen very fast when a predator knows what it’s doing. The meal gets to panic for only a moment, if even that, and then it’s all over. Its throat is torn open and it’s dying. It’s being eaten while it’s still alive. I’m in a hotel room. All that’s left is the denouement.
Conachail Fiodh Dubhthaigh is sitting on my bed in the hotel room, smoking a pipe and looking at me out of his big beautiful blue eyes. I’m having such a complex emotional reaction here. I love him to death, but at the same time I’m obsessively thinking about killing him. “Crush his skull now” is a phrase that keeps running over and over in my mind. I’m sorry it had to go down like this, Conachail says, taking another drag on his pipe. No kidding, I say, while looking around the tiny room for something I can brain him with. Yeah, he says, they made sure there wasn’t a lot of empathy in me, not enough to stop me, but I guess there has to be some or I’m not going to come across as very charming.
People have been programming viruses, he says. Uh-huh, I say. Think of it this way, he says. There are too many of you humans. You need predators. Predators, I say. Yes, he says, but not those old-fashioned big cats that are going extinct. You’re already evolutionarily programmed to fear big cats. You’re already on guard against big cats. Uh-huh, I say. You need a predator in a form you’re not going to be afraid of, something you’ll treat with disdain. No kidding, I say.
There are these viruses, he says, that reprogram rats’ brains if they get into them so that the rats have no fear of cats. Hear about this? No, I say. The rats run right toward cats like it’s fun or something. They get eaten. The cat thinking: oh wow, they deliver lunch now. You’re very witty, I say to him. He acknowledges the compliment with a brief, sad nod.
Movies like Species, Conachail says with disdain. Like anyone who’s going to go after you guys is going to sic big reptiles on you. Silly. You’re already hardwired to fear reptiles. All your self-protective instincts would kick in right away.
You’re an escaped high-school science project, I tell him. It’s all I can think of to say.
I have such a complex emotional reaction. I love him to death, but at the same time I’m obsessively thinking about killing him.
You ever read Jared Diamond? he asks. Who?
I say. In the new world, he says, hominids show up suddenly. Like from Asia or something. Ancestors of Indians. Big tasty mammals hanging out all over the landscape. No fear of humans. Fear has to be evolutionarily innate. You’ve got to be programmed to have fear. If you fear something, reptiles or big cats, hawk shadows, whatever, that’s because there’s an evolutionary history of an arms race behind your fear. That’s why the fear is innate. That’s why children are born with it. So these mammals have no fear of humans. The Indians can walk right up to them, whack their heads off, have a meal on the spot. No hunting. Life is easy. That’s why the big mammals in the new world went extinct. The Indians ate them all.
I’m a businessman, I say, I should be following the relevance of all this.
Humans barely function as units, Conachail tells me. Psychologically, I mean. Your minds are just a bunch of chunked-together modules that work together only in special circumstances. You’re so easy to take advantage of. There’s this old term “kludge.” Your minds are just bunches of kludges. That’s why it’s so easy to hijack parts of your brains, get you to do things, manipulate you. That’s why there are crack addicts. Your pleasure wiring gets hijacked by the drug. Uh-huh, I say. That’s why advertising works, Conachail tells me. That’s why you’re all obese, he says, the way your emotions and desires work in your brains is easy to hijack.
Change the chemistry in the womb just a little bit, Conachail tells me, and the child pops out gay. That’s why the more older siblings a boy has, the more likely he is to be gay. The previous boys have changed the chemistry in the womb. So it’s easy to engineer a virus that’ll do that to a mother’s womb if she catches it. They’re working on it. They? I ask. You Americans have made a lot of people mad. There are lots of ways to get you. Not just with airplanes or bombs.
What do the Irish have against us? I ask. Whoever said I’m Irish? he says back. I knew that wasn’t an Irish accent, I say. Actually it is an Irish accent, he says.
Maybe Russian gangsters are behind it all, he says to me. Did you ever think of that? Why would I think of that? I say, why would anyone think of that? Maybe, Conachail says, Russian gangsters thought it would be cool to engineer a virus that only they had a vaccine for. Corner the market. And maybe it all got out of hand. Or maybe it was a Colombian drug lord with too much time and money on his hands. I’m a mistake that’s gotten out of control, he tells me. You think any of this that you’re telling me is plausible? I ask. You think I’m plausible? Conachail asks right back. What does plausibility have to do anything? Don’t you read newspapers?
Conspiracy theories, Conachail says to me. That’s how one of the modules in your brain works. You don’t understand how accidents can be successful. If something is an accident you expect it to have chaotic effects. Everything successful has to be planned. Or designed. But an accident is all that a flu epidemic is. A successful accident flourishing at your expense.
It’s all pheromone-like molecules and other chemicals like chocolate, Conachail says later, that’s how I have my effects on humans. Those are what my powers amount to. The gold pens? I ask. That was a cheap magician’s trick, he says. Uh-huh, I say. He’s letting me stroke him. Cradle his face in my arms as he speaks. Apparently I’m a bit like cocaine, Conachail muses. It works on men too, he tells me, looking up at me with those big beautiful eyes, but it works on men in a different way than it does on women.
So that’s why I ache and yearn for him, feel a love that I’ve never quite managed to feel toward Clarissa, or anyone else for that matter. Why I try to keep him talking to me, looking at me with those eyes. Why I try to give him everything that’s in my wallet. Why I get so depressed when he leaves my hotel room. Why nothing else in my life means anything to me anymore. Why I can’t kill him like I should.
This is Nature taking revenge, right? I ask. Because I was a land developer and I hated owls? That’s what it’s all about, right? There’s a module in the human brain that craves irony, Conachail tells me sadly. You can’t shut that module off either. No, it’s just a total accident that this happened to you first. I wasn’t supposed to be field-tested on a human family for a few more months at least. But what the hell since you’d hit me and whisked me off. Your previous character and lifestyle, your family? Totally irrelevant. How it usually happens with accidents.
I didn’t know there was biotech in upstate New York, I say, my business-smarts module running on automatic. I would have invested in it if I had known, I add.
Why have you been telling me all this? I ask Conachail, as I caress him lightly on his cheeks. Kiss the side of his face. I don’t know, he says, you think my genetic programming is transparent to me? I’m up to something predatory I’m sure, but I don’t know exactly what. Our conversations, he tells me, whatever they look like on the surface, they can’t be good for you.
I live in this hotel room now, wait for visits from Conachail, which are pretty much the only time I fully wake up, when I’m happy. The rest of the time I waste away, barely aware, barely caring about anything. They’re getting rarer and rarer. His visits, I mean. Time has passed by. Months. I don’t think I’m going to live much longer. Food doesn’t matter to me the way it used to.
I get a call from Doctor Jack, which I decide I’m willing to answer. I’ve been delivering a lot of little people, Doctor Jack tells me. Your friend really gets around, he adds. Or maybe he isn’t the only one, I say. Could be, Doctor Jack muses, I hadn’t thought of that. And the babies, Doctor Jack tells me, so much cuter than ours.
How’s that? I say. It’s odd, he muses again, something about their eyes, the shape of their faces. Or maybe it’s something we’re not even conscious of. Know what I mean? Um, I say. Everyone just loves them to death, he says. Whether they’re the parents or not.
I can hear it in his voice, how tired Doctor Jack is. He wants to die too.
It’s just like cowbirds, I tell Doctor Jack. Cowbirds, Doctor Jack says. Yeah, I say, something the leprechaun told me about recently. They lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. Changelings. There are English folk tales about changelings. Did you know that? Um, right, Doctor Jack says. That’s not really the same thing as cowbirds, is it? he asks, but it’s a statement not a question. Yeah, I guess, I say. Nora, he says. Yes? I respond, but I’m really not interested. She’s pregnant, he tells me. I presumed as much, I say, but thanks for letting me know. I appreciate that. You’re a good friend, I add, barely mustering the energy to compliment him. And your daughter, he says. Um, I say. She’s pregnant too, he tells me. And no one’s saying anything, but I’m sure it’s a little guy. I thought you should know, he adds. Maybe you want to do something about it. Participate in the world again. No thanks, I say, I’m going to pass on that this time around. You’re not alone, he says. Lots of men seem to have just given up. Actively living, I mean. They sleep all the time, sort of waste away. Refuse help. It’s my choice, that’s what they say, it’s my right. That’s what I say too, I say.
When the Spaniards showed up, the Indians thought they were gods. They thought this invasion of strangely dressed white men meant something that they already knew about from their own religious stories, from their already in-place beliefs. No way. It came from totally elsewhere. From someplace they hadn’t even imagined. So here’s the question I want to ask, I think to myself as I half-doze, dying in my hotel room. When the Indians realized what the Spaniards really were, that they weren’t gods, when they saw how creepy the Spaniards actually were, how many of them refused to go along with it? How many of them, I want to know, killed themselves?
Jody Azzouni was born in Brooklyn and started writing at age twelve. He hasn’t stopped (yet). His first love is dialogue, his second is content. These are odd things to love—but then again, being a writer is an odd thing to be. His fiction, poetry, and philosophy have been published in many journals, and he recently published “Keeping things to ourselves. A lot of things. Most things.” in issue 9 (summer 2021) of Bennington Review.