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  • 9. The Great Frustration

    By Seth Fried

    Seth Fried’s marvelous debut story collection, The Great Frustration, has just gone on sale, and he and the good folks at Soft Skull have been kind enough to share the title story with us. It is a world, perhaps like our own, evoked by small, deft, intriguing touches, every phrase canted with purpose. Ripe, but with what?
    he asks—and, happily,
    makes us wonder.

    In the Garden of Eden, a cat steadies itself on a branch while quietly regarding a parrot. The air in the garden is heavy and mixed with the stink of all those animals resting below. No blood is spilled in the garden, and so the roles of most of the animals are greatly reduced. Though most of them are still, as yet, unaware of this fact. They linger in vague proximity to one another, marveling at their own bodies. The larger creatures recognize the strength in their new limbs, while others like the penguin and the guinea pig only wander clumsily from place to place, wondering whether or not they have been the object of some cruel joke. Near a small pond, the penguin waves the dull blades of its arms up at the sky, as if already protesting the existence of a dense and impractical God.

    It has been said that the air in the garden is heavy with the smell of these animals. More than heavy, it is unbearable and oppressive. However, it is a smell that goes generally unnoticed by its originators, except perhaps in the form of an occasional swirl of dander, moved on a breeze not unlike the one that now rustles the fur along the cat’s spine, causing it to hunker low on the branch and flatten its ears as it keeps its eyes fixed on the parrot from a respectful distance. The cat cannot help but observe the parrot with a particular interest. The cat sees it as ripe, but with what?

    Below, the lion does not lie with the lamb, but neither does it tear the lamb into a thousand pieces, neither does it eat the lamb’s head in a single bite, neither does it take the lamb into its jaws and, with all the force in the tremendous muscles of its neck, whip the lamb against a tree over and over again until the lamb is nothing but a skid of dripping slime on a tree trunk. Neither does the lion do any of the things that leap suddenly to mind whenever it sees the lamb. These fantasies confuse the lion because they are at once repellent and invigorating. They leave the lion with a number of questions regarding its feelings toward its fellow creatures. Why, for instance, should the lion feel a twitching in its paws when it sees the peacock? Why should the limbs of the lion jerk, as if it is being startled from a dream? Why when the peacock waddles past should the lion imagine a beautiful explosion of feathers, a cloud of dull greens and iridescent blues that pulses and churns to the rhythm of the lion’s heart?

    At the same time, the peacock is deeply hurt by the cold stares it receives from the lion. It wants only to be liked and the apparent disdain exhibited by the lion is more than it can bear. It moves back and forth before the lion, deliberately fanning its feathers in the hopes of being acknowledged. But the lion only presses its claws into the dirt and closes its eyes, emitting a low sound from its chest. The peacock moves toward the lion, observing it closely. The peacock wants the lion to open its eyes. It wants more than anything for the lion to admire its magnificent feathers. It strains to fan them even further. The lamb, on the other hand, watches the peacock in disbelief. Having interpreted the gaze of the lion with far more acumen, the lamb tends to keep to the brush, sporadically poking out its head to watch the lion as if it were a great storm gathering in the distance.

    The parrot is oblivious, which aggravates the cat. The parrot sits on the branch, happily looking off into the distance and occasionally stretching its wings as if it were in the middle of some imagined flight. This air of solitude and contentment is upsetting to the cat. After all, if it finds the parrot so fascinating, why shouldn’t the parrot at least acknowledge its presence in the tree? This presumed haughtiness on behalf of the parrot stirs up a desire in the cat to knock it from its branch, thumping the back of its head hard enough to send it spiraling to the ground. But the inevitable sight of the parrot on the ground, so far away, would surely only fill the cat with some new anxiety. Instead, it prefers to fantasize about the possibility of placing its nose against the belly of the parrot or of opening its mouth to the parrot’s throat, taking a small nip of flesh between its teeth and pinching it gently, lovingly. Some rich, phantom taste begins to fill the cat’s mouth. By some mysterious impulse, the cat’s jaw begins to quiver. From its throat comes a quiet chatter. Otherwise motionless, the cat remains on the branch, jealously guarding the parrot in its happiness.

    And the parrot is happy. The parrot is desperate with happiness. It reveres, with a profound joy, every aspect of its life in the garden. It considers its parrothood to be an unfathomable windfall of good luck, the very thought of which causes its heart to feel overfull. Though it carries with it also a constant sense of unease. For while it holds the other animals of the garden in neighborly esteem, the parrot also regards them with a secret terror—terror in the sense that their very existence seems to serve as evidence that at some point there must have been a chance, or many chances, that the parrot could have been created as something other than a parrot. As satisfied as the parrot is with life, underlying each moment of pleasure is the frantic contemplation of all those possibilities that could have made things different. The idea that its own feathers could have been yellow instead of blue is enough to make the parrot hide its head in the crook of its wing and hold its breath, as if waiting for the alleviation of some incredible pain. The parrot cannot endure the thought of doing without any of the aspects of its existence that it likes—and it likes all of them. It likes the weight of its own body on the branch. It likes the sound of its own voice. Most of all, it likes flight. It prefers to spend its time flying out where the fields past the horizon are still under divine construction, where it can coast past the hard earth and look down into the sparkling void, its wings borne upward on fierce gusts of nothingness. The parrot likes to look back on the garden, shining by its own light, as it grows, slowly folding out and out. This view of the garden produces a sense of gratification so complete that the parrot feels almost burdened by it. At times, the parrot feels guilty toward the animals that are bound to the earth, toward all the other birds that are not bold enough to fly so far out. It pities them. Why should it alone have access to such wonder? The parrot senses that there is already a great inequity in the world. It takes as an example of this the poor cat that is now attempting to share its branch. It looks so awkward in the tree. And by climbing so high it is clearly trying to emulate the parrot in some way—an idea so pathetic that it sends the parrot into a deep and uncompromising despair. And look, now the cat’s jaw is trembling. It sounds as if it is trying to chirp. How clearly it wants to be a bird! The parrot realizes that of all the animals in the garden, this cat, by some special intuition of its species, is alone in its ability to understand fully how unkind the parrot’s advantage is. The parrot begins to understand that no matter what kind of world is created from this garden, it will be one in which birds are a plague and a misery to cats, one in which cats find themselves afraid of birds and the brilliant flapping of their wings. The indisputable nature of this fact depresses the parrot even further. The cruelty of the garden begins to wound the parrot, who adores it so much. The parrot begins to contemplate wild plans of flying out into the void and flinging itself down into it without stopping, in way of apology to all these wretched beasts chained to the earth. But, in love with life, the parrot cannot find it in its heart to act on this impulse. Instead, it only stares off into the distance, occasionally spreading its wings.

    Elsewhere in the garden, a skin mite clings thoughtfully to an elephant’s crotch. From that vantage, it is decidedly underwhelmed by creation. The craggy skin of the elephant stretches out beneath the mite and offers the appearance of a saggy, gray wasteland. Repulsed by such grotesque surroundings, the mite turns inward and attempts to mitigate the harshness of its existence by arriving at a kind of philosophy. Having ascended a gray valley, it looks back down into the darkness and begins to construct wild, untestable notions of the world. The mite attempts to achieve a theory that would explain the unmistakable contrast between the base nature of the world and the sweet intricacies of its own spirit. Hanging upside down from the elephant’s crotch, the mite looks up at the ground, which it understands to be the firmament. It observes the gigantic bodies of the animals passing below and tries to read auguries from them, the meanings of which depend primarily on the body’s size and shape, the direction from which it enters the sky, and by which it exits. The mite uses these movements to guess at everything from the shape of the universe to changes in the weather, to the quiet drift of its own fortune. In its more expansive moments, it imagines that those heavenly bodies are actually living creatures. Like itself, only on some immense scale. It imagines that the roof of the firmament is actually a plain across which these creatures are able to move. It imagines the existence of such creatures as being in some way analogous to its own. Though this is where the mite’s spirits begin to fail, where the mite begins to feel dizzy and without center. The mite imagines a world in which such creatures could actually exist. It imagines all the magnificent things that would be possible in such a world and feels capable of none of them.

    As these thoughts take place, the elephant holds up its trunk and squints at it, as if regarding it from a great distance. It notes the complexity of its own skin, the unending ruts and crosshatches. It is faced with thoughts, which, although the exact opposite of the mite’s, are no less disturbing to it.

    Everywhere in the garden, there is a similar confusion and frustration. The monkey sits on the ground with its hands hanging loosely around the base of a tree. It wants to whip a stick at the back of the horse’s legs. Its body seems so perfectly tuned to skitter up the tree, and it wants only for something to chase it there. The pig roots aimlessly at nothing; the frog despises the fly; the fly falls in love with the donkey and the giraffe stands awkwardly in a clearing, as if awaiting instructions.

    Meanwhile, the cat creeps toward the parrot. It begins to feel impatient with its own predicament. Its lust for the parrot has grown and revealed itself as something violent. The cat sees now that it wants the parrot to droop lifelessly from its mouth, that it wants to wag the parrot back and forth until its neck pops and its beak clacks pathetically with each jerk. The muscles of the cat move toward the parrot of their own volition, as if drawn by some external force. The cat begins to understand that there are aspects of its own nature that are not under its control. This exasperates the cat. Why should it be placed in this body only to suffer some desire that is against its will? Why should it be forced to play audience to its own sickness? And if its body is not its own, then where does the cat begin? When does it start to be the cat, and not just some cooperation of limbs, motivated by compulsion and compelled irrevocably toward parrots? The cat awaits the answers to these questions.

    Below, all the animals in the garden await the answers to identical questions. They wait in the midst of the very first anticipation. Their collective quiet is pulled taut, a stem straining under the weight of some great fruit. They wait for an invisible bond to be broken. They wait to be sent happily, savagely, into what’s next.


    © by Seth Fried. From the collection The Great Frustration. Used by permission of the author and Soft Skull Press.

    Visit Seth here . . .

    His friends at Soft Skull here . . .

    Read an interview with him at One Story here . . .

    And read more about The Great Frustration here!


    1. Elsie Luna on August 12, 2011 :

      It was interesting. You seem very knowledgeable in your field.

    2. best kind of life on May 27, 2012 :

      very nice story , hope there are a lot more on this site .

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