§They hadn’t known of each other’s existence. On opposite sides of the world, they’d swum in their own salt seas, tails whipping, wings beating, bearing them up out of the surf then diving again, their hooves cutting into the waves. One day, though, a sound, and the feeling of something moving in the water, something unknown. In the Western sea, one raised his head up out of the water, shaking his mane. He churned his long, scaled tail. He whinnied. In the Eastern sea, the other untwisted from his curled shape, and whinnied back. It was dark in these oceans, and neither of them could see the other, but now they knew what they’d been missing. They began to swim, dazzled by love. It had been months of tiny motions, delicate perambulations of tails, fins, wings and hooves.
§Bette went to visit. “Hooves,” Joe told her darkly, and then drank his hot tea in one frantic gulp, as though it was cold lemonade. He looked out the window, toward the groomed, flowering hedge. Bette had reason to know that the flowers in it were fake. She’d tried to smell them, against her will, knowing full well that it was winter. “Damned little hooves,” said Joe. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” “No more Prufrock. And no more horses. I wish you’d be clear,” Bette said. “I’ve brought some crossword puzzles, and a book, if you’d like a little reading aloud. I’ve brought some of the chocolates you like.” They were not exactly chocolates. They were carobs. He was not allowed chocolates. “I’m being clear, Bette,” Joe said, lucid for a moment. “Hooves. But also fish. And wings. All they do is gambol.” “Wings? Gamble?” said Bette. She glanced over toward the activity table, where the women were playing bridge with a kind of savage glee. One was wearing enough makeup to cover an army of teenage girls. Love’s Baby Soft was covering other things. That woman gave Joe the eye. Bette wondered, her heart carbonated. “No,” said Joe. “No, no, no. Gambol. Trot. Gallop. And they swim, like dolphins. There’s a name for things like that. You know it,” he said, suddenly angry. “You know what I mean. They’ve got wings, Bette. You know.” “I do not,” said Bette. “I absolutely do not.” “Hip,” said Joe. “Hip, hip.” Bette considered the locked door that led to the shallow swimming pool. It didn’t seem like a good idea to have a swimming pool at a place like this. He could only be referring to activity hour, and the women. There was some form of water aerobics on the schedule. She wondered if she should stay and make sure nothing untoward was happening. Wings. There was nothing good about wings. But no. Here was Leor and here too were Reardon and Nathaniel. She had no use for any of them, though the trunk of her car was full of bad little gifts for her sons, wrapped and tagged. She’d thought to drop them off on their porches later. “I’ve brought you a ukulele,” Leor announced, triumphant. “Music soothes them.” Bette glared at Leor. “Them?” she said. “Them,” said Leor. “How are you, Dad? It’s Leor.” “And Reardon,” said the older son. He’d gotten a haircut. He hardly had hair. Bette suddenly felt appalled to imagine herself birthing them, these grown men, the way they’d tumbled out of her, the way foals turned into hall–height horses. Horrible centaurs, maybe. She considered that. They galloped down the hall of the facility. She knew her sons’ steps. The way they snorted. “Nathaniel,” said Nathaniel, using his most toddler voice. “You can call me Nath, dad, if that’s easier.” “Joe,” said Joe. “Pleased to meet you.” “He knows who you are,” Bette snapped. Leor strummed the ukulele, playing some sort of tinkling, terrible song. “What is that?” Bette asked. “You can stand under my umbrella,” sang Leor. Joe nodded along, and Bette felt so frustrated she wanted to sing herself. “Hooves, and whipping fish tails,” said Joe, and smiled. “There are two of them now. They’re together.” He looked at Bette. “Remember the beach and the drinks and the paper umbrellas? Remember the polka dot bikini she wore?” “I wore it,” said Bette. “It was blue. You’re the one who bought it for me.” “Ella, ella,” sang Reardon. “Hey, hey, hey.” “Hippopotamus,” said Joe, and snapped his fingers. “That’s the word I was looking for, and I’ve been saying horses. The Hippopotamus Test. It’s in Water Babies.” Even as Bette leaned in, trying to get clarity, he began to sing with the sons. “Now that it’s raining more than ever,” he sang, his voice sweet and pure, like her husband had gone choirboy. Where had he learned the song? What was it? Surely not a hymn, and it wasn’t the Beatles either. The four of them, father and sons, sang it to the end, but Bette didn’t know the words, and even if she had, she didn’t feel like singing them. She went to the library and checked out The Water Babies, looking for clues as to what was still in her husband’s head, and found only a short satire of scientists debating evolution, apes versus men. The brain apparently contained two pieces, one on each side, each called the hippopotamus. At four in the morning, she had a moment of joy when she realized they meant the hippocampus, and more joy still when she learned from the internet that for fifty years, from the 1770’s to the 1820’s science had referred to those parts of the brain as the hippopotamus, due to a typo. The joy faded, though, when she realized that all this came to nothing, that brains were brains, and that Joe’s was gone. This was nothing she hadn’t already known. She woke in the night, singing the umbrella song, smelling the lost smoke of the kitchen fire. She opened the volume of Eliot beside the bed, tore one page into small pieces, and swallowed them with a glass of water.
§The seahorse from the West saw the other first, his mane rising over a wave. He uncoiled his tail and galloped through the surf, whickering. On the shore, a paper umbrella left too long in the sun burst into flame, and two cocktail glasses splintered. Three children made sand castles. One buried himself beneath the castle walls, and the others dug a moat. The second hippocamp trotted up partway onto the sand, its serpentine tail trailing, and the little boys watched it come, amazed. It ignored them. Then one little boy was gone beneath the castle, quicksand, the moat growing larger. The seahorses rose up and over the waves, brushing aside a foam of nouns and verbs, last lines, similes. They butted heads, and their tails lashed, scaled and gleaming, and another little boy was gone, a rogue wave rising over his head. The second hippocamp looked at its counterpart and neighed, surfing over the waves to get to him, and tossing in delight. The waves rose higher, higher, tidal, taking seagrass, dunes, taking bathing mats and little shovels made of plastic.
§“Do I dare disturb the Universe?” Bette said, her weekly visit, reading aloud in resignation to Joe, who placidly looked at her. An hour earlier, he’d sat down at the piano and played a song as though she was a stranger, and as though he was too. Joe had never played the piano before. He didn’t know how, or at least, Bette hadn’t known he had. Joe whinnied. Bette looked at him. Should she call a nurse? There was no point. He would whinny if he wanted to whinny. He would paw the air with his hooves. He was still Joe, to some degree. The exterior was the man she’d been married to. The interior was a wicked landscape filled with mythical horses. “Hippopotamus,” he said, and smiled. “Hippocampus,” she said, correcting. She’d puzzled it out. It had seemed like a victory until she’d realized there was not much in the way of victory left. The brain’s hippocampi were named for their shape, after horse–headed serpent–tailed seahorses, but the two of them were also the relevant parts of Joe, the places where everything should have been and wasn’t. The snow he’d meant to walk into had melted into a sea, or so Bette imagined. She’d stared for hours at a scan of Joe’s brain, its quadrants mapped out, the twin hippocampi on either side outlined in red. Those horses contained her, and her sons, and their lives. She did not want to say take me with you, but she wanted to go. He was on a vacation in a place that didn’t exist. Bette looked at Joe. She whinnied.
§In the waves, a piano surfaced. A woman in a blue polka–dotted bikini foundered, gasping. A man in swimming trunks leapt in after her. The hippocamps played together, their wings spread, their tails looping, and the water rose, but the man swam out, out, and the woman, stronger now, swam up from the bottom, her bikini straps untying, the salt making her hair stiff. The sun was hot and the ocean was full of bubbles and bright fish. The hippocampi swept through the water, side by side, and down below, at the very bottom of the sea, the sand sifted over gold coins and bones, bassinets, mammography records, fondue sets. A wedding ring lost in Greece in the sixties and replaced, pages from every book ever written. The woman was naked now, a strawberry mole at the top of her thigh, a bruise on her upper arm in the shape of a madeleine cookie. The man was naked too but for the keys around his wrist, the cabana number on them fading, unreadable, some shack knocked down in a storm. The hippocampi took flight, ears flattened, water rising up, up, up. The sky was cloudless, but the woman looked up and a snowflake landed in her lashes, falling from nowhere. The water was very salty, and it kept her afloat. It bobbed with disappearing words and faces, pictures of people long dead, old chairs, a woman crooning a song. An umbrella appeared suddenly, high in the blue, flying like a kite. The hippocamps landed again in the waves, and the woman clambered onto the back of one of them. The man was still swimming, out there, far off, his trunks bright against the horizon, and after a moment, the other hippocamp flew out to snatch him up. The two moved in unison now, driving through the waves, brazen–hooved horses of Poseidon, as the sky opened up. From it fell everything left behind, last words and first lines, poems, wakes, birthday cards, letters from students, letters from lovers, the memories of eating, of sleeping, of drinking, of dancing. From the sky fell the memory of talking, and then the memory of breath. The hippocamps opened their mouths, and then the woman did. The man opened his mouth, and finally, the mouth of the world opened too. All together now, in one tremendous draught, they drank of the sea, the sky, the last lists of the living. All together now, they drank of sunlight and of the falling snow that eventually would bury everything, the world shifted into a sweet, sugared expanse of ice, and below it, the darkness of a night sea. There would soon be nothing left but the memories of the dead, all of them floating silently, the bones of forgotten words turned into toothpicks, arranging and rearranging themselves in the cool black sand, but for now, the beach was bright and white and full of flying, swimming, singing horses.
In Memory of R. Dwayne Moulton & Bob Schenkkan, Sr.