This passage is excerpted from Ned Beauman’s novel Madness is Better Than Defeat, and the illustrations are by Nathan Gelgud.
She’d longed to visit the jungle ever since she was eight years old and her father had sent her to take piano lessons.
In the apartment below her piano teacher’s, there was a childless old woman who happened to die during that first dissonant summer of lessons, and when the old woman’s nephews arrived to see about the body they found that she’d filled the apartment with dozens and dozens of spider plants and dumb canes and aroid palms, so many that one could hardly move around inside. While the nephews made preparations for the funeral, they instructed one of their sons to start clearing out the apartment. What the entrepreneurial seventeen-year-old did instead was charge the neighborhood kids a nickel each for admission to the “jungle.”
The radiators were turned up high, and back in the kitchen four big pots of water were boiling on the stove, so you could feel the jowls of humidity in the air as soon as you walked inside. Under your feet the floorboards were gritted with a thin layer of loose soil and dry mulch. The potted plants had been arranged into an avenue leading from the front door, so you had to push the foliage aside with every step. For some reason that year every fruit and vegetable stall in New York was selling mealy Mexican guavas, and either they attracted drosophila faster than any other fruit or they already had eggs in their skins when they were sold, because a bag on a sideboard would populate a room within twenty-four hours, so the corners of the apartment had been heaped with them. The winks of nervous blue in your peripheral vision were the single live butterfly the grandnephew had employed along with the fruit flies, and there were also a few budgerigars chirping in a cage somewhere out of sight. Even with the windows closed, you could hear the rumble of the elevated train outside, but it might have been a distant pachyderm. As you got about halfway into the living room, a pulley squeaked and then something pounced from the ceiling. This was a taxidermied jaguar cub that thumped to the ground and then lay there on its side staring up at you with empty eye sockets, a rope trailing from its left hind leg, the black fur on its flanks worn away in patches like an old rug. And while you were still recovering from the scare, a witch doctor appeared out of nowhere.
The grandnephew wore a ghoul mask painted with red stripes and a bearskin rug that he’d pinned into a sort of toga, and he pranced and gibbered for a minute before giving you a taste of roasted crocodile, which was pork rind dyed green with food coloring. Then he shook your hand and escorted you out of the apartment. Several of the other kids apparently asked for their nickels back, but not Vansaska. The amateur jungle stayed with her for years. She had so many questions about it. Why would the grandnephew have gone to such trouble when it couldn’t possibly have been worth his while financially? Where had he found the stuffed jaguar cub and the live butterfly? Was the jungle supposed to be located in Africa or South America or Asia or at some impossible tripoint like the Rock of the Three Kingdoms? Why did he think crocodile meat would be green all the way through? And how long had the apartment been like that before the neighbors intervened? Long enough for the imitation to become real, for the jungle to legitimate its exclave, as the birds laid eggs and moss ate the wallpaper and the floorboards warped up like revenant trees? When Bryce took her on a date to see Congo Cavalcade she loved it because the unconvincing sound-stage sets made her feel as if she were right back in the Upper West Side version. Several times in the motel room in Westwood she’d told Whelt how jealous she was that he’d get to see the wilds for himself. Now Pomutz was telling her that she would have the same adventure. For at least a few more weeks she’d be far from Bryce, far from her father, far from New York, far from everything—but close to that awkward, long-lashed boy.
Copyright © 2017 by Ned Beauman