The students sit quietly, looking at the picture, their silence full of suppressed giggles, not academic endeavour. It is the ugly picture, the one with the egg dressed up, sitting on a wall. The one from the children’s book. Most of the students suspect they are not being taken seriously, are waiting to see if it’s a trick. They are young, after all. Professor Dodgson watches them silently, waiting for grumbles. She does this every year.
“OK”, says a stroppy boy with a spiky haircut. “What is an egg doing sitting on a wall?” His chin juts out slightly, inviting her to slap him down.
Stupid question! I’m not an egg, am I? What a moron.
“I mean, it is an egg, isn’t it? It’s shaped like an egg, looks like an egg, smells like a…, you know?” She wonders if he’s about to do the ‘I think, therefore I am’ thing. Or make a reference to Sherlock Holmes.
Fucking humans, no imagination. Have you seen what they’ve done to me over the years? The cravat, the trousers, the jacket… Jesus. All that Victorian crap with the little blond girl. I can’t talk and I certainly don’t want to play word games with some little miss.
“I read somewhere it was supposed to be a gun, like a cannon or something. But… how could an egg represent a cannon?”
There he goes, she thinks, concrete thinking.
“It’s an egg,” he says emphatically. “Though I couldn’t tell you what it’s doing sitting on a wall.”
He sits back, pushes his legs out and looks up to challenge her. She nods, but stays silent. It’s obvious he isn’t listening to the picture.
There goes the anthropomorphising. Technically I’m not ‘sitting’ at all. I’m perched, I’m placed, I’m… balanced. And I never believed a king would try and save me. Let alone those stupid painted soldiers, with their pink cheeks and tasselled hats. How long did it take them to realise they could do with a little camouflage? They’re all ‘Look at me in my bright red coat’, ‘Look at me!’ BANG! Bloody useless.
The students presume Professor Dodgson is testing their ability to decode a nursery rhyme. But really she just wants to know if they can hear him too. She’s always assumed it’s a ‘he’, despite the obvious lack of gender. In the hideous picture, he’s dressed like a parody of a boy, or a man, but the voice in her head is high-pitched, inhuman. She narrows her eyes, checking to see whether any of the students have the same distracted air she has; trying to listen to more than one voice at the same time.
She tunes back into him; he’s really furious now.
… It’s not as if the Royal Bloody Engineering Corps have any practice in patching things up. Repairing guns, yes. Patching up egg-like non-sentient sentients, no. Do you hear me, Mr Moron? Yes, I said non-sentient sentients. And egg-like, NOT an egg!
She pictures the king’s horses, skittish and beautiful, cantering forward as the painted soldiers whip them on. But when they arrive, there’s just an empty wall with shards of shell scattered beneath. Bemused, they toss their manes and sniff the pieces. What are those pieces made of, she wonders, if he isn’t an egg?
She shakes her head to drive out the liquid, sexual shiver she feels when picturing his intact, spherical shell. No, he isn’t an egg. He didn’t sit on a wall; he didn’t fall. There were no king’s horses or king’s men. No one to put him together again. It was all just Victorian whimsy, written by her long dead relative, trying to make sense of the egg-shaped presence in his head. In her head. The egg-shaped non-sentient being that, in some inexplicable way, had infiltrated their minds. There must be others who could hear him; but she has never found them.
Whenever she can, she uses the picture in lectures. Here at the college, in schools, at the University of the Third Age – the elderly should be more receptive to the unexplained, shouldn’t they? She posts videos on YouTube, has a Facebook group, gives interviews, does whatever she can to get the picture out there, to see if it speaks, literally speaks, to anyone else. With the younger ones, who are prickly about childish things, she hints at the cultural importance of nursery rhymes, of folklore. They suffer so from their materialism – everything has to mean something, and quickly too, before it loses value. They can parrot all the Freudian stuff – they’ve seen it in films. “Transference, dream imagery, oedipal complexes”, the words rattled off, devoid of insight. God knows what they make of her forebear, who wrote nonsense verse and took pictures of little girls.
She wonders if she would have more luck in prisons or mental institutions, in mosques or churches. If the people there might be open to hearing something that isn’t voiced. Less inhibited about admitting it.
And she worries that she has no images of his prior incarnations. Is her vision constricted by the children’s book? But there is nothing else and he won’t answer questions or provide clues. He’d rather taunt her about how she’ll never be rid of him or mock her loneliness.
Here is what she does know – there has always been an egg-shaped non-sentient sentient. Over the years, it has occasionally communicated with humans. Somehow, it was friendly with Mr Punch. At some point, it did know the king, or a king, or various kings. And, finally, and most perplexingly, it demonstrates a contradiction – a sterile egg that is not an egg, a monstrously fertile non-egg, embryo-less.
Trapped in a book, in the ether, in her head, forever perched on a wall or shattering at a soldier’s feet. It taunts her, because, although neither real, nor sentient, it still suffers the agonies of imprisonment.
As does she.
Cressida Evans is a Welsh writer living in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. She writes short stories and film scripts. Having spent a large part of her life traveling and living abroad, Cressida is interested in how cultures blend and clash and how the forces of history and landscape shape our dreams and narratives.