Animal Instincts

“Maybe we should run away.”

I stop cutting carrots into tiny squares. I scan my husband, trying to spot any signs of crazy or burnout, as he is normally abnormally logical. I see that his tie is off; it lies quietly a top the back of his chair and his shirt buttons are undone at the top but not haphazardly so. His shoes are on the right feet. I ask him what he means in a way that does not give away my concern. In reply he jabs his phone into the air between us and gives me two words, presented as though they were gifts. I take his phone, the screen of which is alive with letters. I read while the carrots dry out on the bench. “It’s mad.” I say when I am done, and he agrees but we keep quoting the article to each other until we get into bed. Then it is quiet save for the clicking of the pipes and the two of us thinking together. 

By the time the weekend rolls around we have placed an order and we are holding hands in our living room, waiting for the doorbell to ring. I can feel our pulses cascading against each other through our thin wrist-skins. When the doorbell does ring my husband leaps up. He forgets to let go of my hand in the process so we both appear at the front door to welcome our delivery in, startling the postman. While my husband signs for the parcels I stand myself in front of the two boxes feeling a nauseous anticipation. One of the boxes is exactly the same height as me. We cut our purchases out of their cardboard cages and step back to admire them. 

“They got your nose just right.” My husband tells me and, in turn, I show him how they placed each of his freckles with amazing precision. There is a tiny switch in each of their bellybuttons and we giggle as we turn them on. We all say hello and I feel like I’m at a dinner party where nobody has ever met but they all know a lot of slightly too personal information about each other. Our fake selves do not notice any discomfort, however, and they teach us how to program them. They are extremely helpful and also very convincing replicas of us. The only difference between us and them, we discover, is the way they emit a faint blue light from behind their eyelids as they sleep. 

For a week we continue going to work. We both wear tiny cameras that gather information, which will allow for our fake-selves to take over our working lives seamlessly. At night it is dark and we are alone and we use this secret time to talk about what to pack and where to go. We agree that we are sick of the city and we look up places using keywords like ‘isolated’ and ‘remote’, eventually deciding on Foula because of a shared delight in the unusual fact that they celebrate Christmas on the 6th of January. 

After deciding on a location we get truly caught up in the drama of it all. My husband suggests we leave early in the morning but I say we should leave in the middle of the night and his eyes light up. When we tell our fake-selves we are leaving it feels awkward and we thank them too many times even though they tell us there is no need to thank them since, while they can emulate emotions to a high standard, they cannot feel them. We nod and nod as if we can imagine not feeling anything. As midnight approaches we forget to feel guilty as we giggle in the dark and tiptoe past our fake-selves, who are motionless in their soft blue light. 

In Foula we explore different hobbies. I write stories and my husband begins taking photos of birds, since birds are the most dominant species on the island. He teaches himself how to print the images using smelly chemicals in the dark. Soon our small house is filled with the photos, an entire wall is dedicated a species named the red-throated loon. ‘You’re the loon.’ I tell him and we laugh and snort like children. Soon we begin feeling suffocated by all the photographs and we miss being able to buy new clothes and look at things that aren’t birds or grass or ocean or birds. We start traveling to big cities and move further and further away from our fake-selves. Sometimes we spot other fakes and we wonder how our own are doing. We ask each other if we think that maybe someone might suspect that they are not really us, but our pay keeps arriving in the bank every month so we guess that everything is fine. After a year we get used to not worrying.

In Kyoto we feel giddy; we are drunk on colors and the anxiety of not being able to understand a foreign language. We find a shop down a side street with an alarmingly colorful window display of taxidermy birds. We are pleased at the reminder of our beginning days living in Foula and ease open the door as we point out specific beaks and plumages to one another. Inside the shopkeeper is sleeping behind the counter. Under his eyelids we note an unmistakable, luminous blue and we whisper about it excitedly. We note his particularly wiry beard and the birthmark on his neck, blooming just underneath his left ear. We note it so that we can play spot the real human later. “Excuse me,” says my husband, and we watch with bated breath as the fake-man powers up. “Sorry, seem to have dozed off,” says the fake-man.

He pretends very realistically to wipe sleep from his eyes and I ask if he has any red-throated loon specimens. After, when we are a reasonable distance from the store we run, clutching at each other and laughing until tears run down our faces. In a park we pull out the stuffed red-throated loon from its plastic bag and, although we don’t know what’s so funny, we struggle to contain ourselves. My husband positions the loon on a low branch and we stop laughing. I lay my head against his shoulder and we stare up at the bird sadly; it does not look free. Daylight is disappearing from the park and the gates will close soon. Everything feels like a death. I climb the tree and my husband hands me the bird. I take it and stroke its red feathers and kiss its tiny head. I reach as far out from the sturdy branch as I possibly can and tie the bird to an outer twig. Back on the ground we look up again. With the wind jostling the branches, it almost looks like the bird itself is moving. We agree that it’s better than nothing. 

In Minneapolis, four months later, we find the real shopkeeper, the one who is free. He is performing his poetry and we are sitting in the crowd. The bright light on the stage makes his birthmark unmistakable. We feel like we know him, truly know him, like we are all sharing the same secret. He tells the audience that his next poem is called Dead in the Windows and we tilt our bodies forward in our chairs.

As the blue light illuminates their brown wings/the colour of ash/paper thin/skin shivers over me/thirsty for air/I have kept many birds/bolted behind glass/I do not wish to keep any more.

My husband takes a shallow breath beside me; we are both crying. We are thinking of the fake red-loon as well as the real loon. We are thinking of our fake-selves at our real jobs. We are thinking about the real poet and our real selves. We buy both his books even though we have already paid him for the bird. We clutch them outside in the street and decide where to go next. 

About the author

Kelsey Ipsen is a New Zealand born writer who lives in France with her husband and half-wild cat. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in PANK, Molotov Cocktail, Hobart, Gone Lawn and elsewhere. You can find her online at www.cargocollective.com/kelseyipsen

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