First of all the name of the creature who follows me around: Agvagvat. Watching my mouth in the mirror call her, “Hey, Agvagvat,” I can’t stand it—Agvagvat isn’t an attractive word to say. When my mouth makes those guppy sounds I look very middle aged.
Agvagvat is squishy, jelly-like but harder to tear. This evening she followed me down the frozen food aisle of the Safeway using her flat body to propel herself forward in the manner of a sea slug. She is purply-pink, with frills along her back that look delicate and sedate and as if they would sway in water when in fact they are firm and entirely under Agvagvat’s control. A few terrible, thin hairs coil here and there. Watching her maneuver her boneless back across a mangled pierogi, you might think she has picked up the hairs on her journey. She hasn’t. Even though Agvagvat travels in direct contact with the ground, she is surprisingly clean, or, at least, nothing sticks to her.
Yet she’s a good friend. She doesn’t understand hard facts very well—you could never ask her to give a financial presentation, for example—but as for emotional subtlety, in my opinion there is none as…well, if perceptive isn’t exactly the right word, let’s say: there is none as accommodating as Agvagvat.
This morning, in the UberX en route to my presentation where I would deliver management’s decision to terminate the Fund, I was very supercilious to my driver, Moe—not smug, not condescending or clipped, but you could tell I basked in my own magnanimity. Traffic on the Gardiner was gridlocked. “Take Lakeshore,” I said. I was feeling proud of myself. I was thinking, ‘Here we go, Woman of the World, things to do, people to speak to.’ As we travelled past the ostentatious gates of Exhibition Place and its aura of Victorian enchantment that after all these years still wants to impress daddy but hasn’t figured out the means by which it will succeed, a wave of despair rushed over me. A wave of self-loathing, actually. Look at how eager I am to please authority—but who is this authority, anyway? In my ambition I strove to be the authority, but I knew if I succeeded the whole fiction of authority would crumble because, let’s face it, I know myself, I know the many ways in which I am not knowledgeable, courageous or serene. Worse, if I’m already addicted to the rush—to the relief!—of there being, after all, a point to my adult life, given a little power and applause what wouldn’t I do, what dark instruction wouldn’t I obey from an even greater authority (so in reach, so comforting) who flatteringly assured me that I had been specially chosen to complete the task? I’m no hero. That’s what I realized.
Seeing me disturbed by existential troubles, it was Agvagvat who dragged herself onto my lap and sat quietly under my hands, offering me the encouragement that sometimes only weight and mass can give. In return, I poured some of my coffee into the hole along her back, deep in the ridge, that I think functions as a toothless mouth, though it doesn’t seem to chew, or to swallow, merely to smack open and closed, as if responding to air in a way that isn’t quite like breathing, either. The coffee went in and dribbled out, gummed by the slow squelching of her hole.
“Ouch,” she said. “Hot.”
“Can I touch her?” Moe asked sweetly.
He’d been watching her the whole time, of course.
“What? Here in the car?”
“Well, not if you ask first.”
Moe smirked—he knew he’d got me. “You’re so funny. You let me touch Agvagvat all the time, but the moment I say her name out loud you die of shame.”
Such a Moe thing to say. He isn’t only my Uber driver, you see. But the stakes of our affair are so low, when I’m next to him it’s as if this all took place a few years ago and I’m reliving it in memory. The moment he pays me any attention, I pay my attention to Agvagvat. I’m quiet about it, but I like to secretly tickle her so she wakes up, then I press her on the right places until she’s as happy as a cat being scratched, though far less obvious about her enjoyment. The only sign of Agvagvat’s enjoyment is a very slight reaching toward, as though she is shifting in her sleep. Because her pleasure looks so small, I begin to suspect Agvagvat of thriving on minutiae. She annoys me so much I have to tuck her under the waist of my pants, even if it pinches her, in my best attempt to pretend she isn’t there. “Forget it for the next few hours,” I tell her. “Go to sleep.”
Actually she isn’t annoying at all. She’s kind and restrained, not showy. She isn’t upset when I ignore her—if, this evening at Safeway, I pushed the cart toward the frozen lasagna at a speed I knew she would not be able to match given her limbless body, she never whined, “Hey, can we walk together please?” She gives me my space. She might stop to look through one of the freezer doors at a box of edamame. And even though she did nothing wrong in slowing to look, even though every single shopper in the frozen food aisle stopped to look at vegetable potstickers or bags of blueberries or whatever, I nonetheless saw people behind Agvagvat grit their teeth. They veered their carts around her, maybe giving her a little ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ grin if she happened to turn around, but I know—I see it in their eyes and in the closeness of their cart to Agvagvat’s body—they have a powerful urge to run over Agvagvat, even to jump up and down on Agvagvat. I feel protective of her when I see someone nearly run her over with their cart, so—tonight—I went back and said in a voice loud enough for all to hear, “Everyone’s in a rush, eh?” And she said, in that murmuring, underwater voice with its eternal mission to coax me toward a moral life, “You’ve done worse things today than buy a frozen lasagna. Just feed it to the kids and make something from scratch on the weekend. Do that and I’ll let you pour more coffee down my hole. I know you like to look inside.” Then we had to look at one another companionably and pretend nobody wanted to run her over in the first place! It was oppressive.
But worse, far worse, is when I’m at home with Denis and the kids, and I’m doing something banal and vindictive, say unwrapping a frozen lasagna and plotting in a secret chamber of my heart to fill up on salad and let everyone else eat the chemicals, and there is a guilty silence from the next room. When I go stand in the doorway, I see my two daughters, side by side. They are staring down at Agvagvat, who sits on the moss green ottoman looking up at them. One of them has a metal kebob stick, the other a meat thermometer (they went through the kitchen drawer while I was in the bathroom even though they’re only three and five!). They watch the puckering little puncture wounds they made in Agvagvat dribble an inoffensive ooze that’s clear as spit; they bend to see if there’s an odour. As the wounds begin their quick, thorough process of self-healing and my kids stare at them, astonished, traumatized for having been the ones to inflict mutilation, I find that I understand them completely. I, too, look down at Agvagvat sometimes and have an urge to dig my fingers into her squishiness and to tear her open. Buried in that urge is a hope, or a fear, that if I tear her open I will discover there is no end to her, she’s deeper than anyone realized, if I stick my hand far down into Agvagvat’s irritating softness, I will light upon the hardness buried inside of her like a tooth, the powerful core of Agvagvat.
Of course Agvagvat contains no key, no mysterious core. She’s in pain, that’s all. It’s unjust. She stares back up at my kids, the ones who hurt her, and I see it—Agvagvat’s hope. And this is really why she terrifies me. What right has a creature as exposed as Agvagvat to bear such hope?
SEYWARD GOODHAND’s stories have been shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and a National Magazine Award, and longlisted for the CBC Short Story Award. She’s finishing a PhD in English from the University of Toronto and lives in Winnipeg.