the demographics of subaqueous light
Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury, the one-hundred-and-twenty-three-year-old
Klub Med executive whod wealthied himself fat and greasy as
a bacon-wrapped chunk of filet mignon through his companys seminal
investigations into cryonics (in 2021 he was instrumental in tugging
back one Anna Tesler-Huntington from the brink of 2001 smack into
a bout of spontaneous psychosis), debarked from the beetlish black
cab outside his Knightsbridge flat at 3 Hans Crescent across the street
from Harrods counterfeit-gothic façade.
He slipped the brown-toothed driver his ebony cybercash slab and stood
rubbing the side of his bearded face, loftily contemplating the deserted
street, a good hundred meters of which he owned.
Safe-zone floodlights eradicating the night around him.
The driver returned the slab with a rotten-nubbed broken lampoon of
a smile, and the doctor mounted the cement steps leading up to the
massive heart attack that would drop him in less than nine-hundred
Dr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury had other matters on his mind at present
. . . nothing precise, nothing especially important . . . just a gentle
kaleidoscopic tumble of images and sounds from the last few hours
. . . laughter washing over the shiny table top at his weekly dinner
with colleagues at the private club up Kensington Road . . . approving
quips about Great Britains recent adoption of an isolationist
policy spawned by the collapse of visa enforcement, the resulting
population influx from Hong Kong, and the increasingly eerie sense
those bleeding chop-chops had nudged the reals into something resembling
minority status . . . smoked oysters from the ponds south of London
glistening on beds of crushed ice, rosy mounds of steak tartar garnished
with capers and spring onions piled on a spinach-leaf carpet, lobster
bisque, dab of Iranian caviar on a buttery biscuit, warm moist bread,
a decanter of dark port, small sweet lemon sorbet intervals to cleanse
the palate along the flyovers and roundabouts of this expansive gastronomical
motorway . . . and, finally, the honeyed sparkle of a slender glass
of champagne raised in salute to Guy Fawkes Day, a refreshing breeze
of general merriment despite this dreadfully humid November and dreary
political wind blowing in from the Far East . . .
Dr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury loved food almost as much as he loved
the idea of Great Britain. He loved to become one with food, merge
its being with his, sense its wet mass peristalsize down the back
of his throat, through his digestive tract, on its course toward uniting
with his cellular mechanics, spirit and matter joined in a flash of
He loved the smells of it. He loved the textures, the hues, the heft,
the multifold recipes for its composition on the plate.
Food for Dr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury was fine art.
It was also the reason he weighed as much as a Shetland pony . . .
why, with his short white hair and long white whiskers and rotund
squat neck and capacious keg belly and pygmy thin legs, he reminded
his colleagues of the main character in a Christmas pageant.
Genetic manipulation was why food hadnt murdered him. Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury
employed his wealth accrued from his cryonics work for Klub Med (as
in Klub Medellin, as in the Medellin Cartel, an economic entity that
diversified after most previously illicit drugs were legalized over
the course of the first two decades of the new century) to extend
his life in time in a method analogous to how food extended his presence
in space. On a weekend holiday to a Swiss clinic on his ninety-eighth
birthday, he had his genes twidgled to snip back his cholesterol-absorption
capacity by eighty-nine percent while generating immunity to most
airborne pollutants, many sexually transmitted diseases, most cancers,
malaria, and TB.
With eight-hundred seconds left to live, Dr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury
halted before the slick white door to what used to be the Colombian
Embassy, a six-story red-brick affair with white-trimmed bay windows
and white wrought-iron balconies at each level. The overall effect
was, he realized for the first time as he voice-activated the petabyte
nano-puter that was his wool tie, wedding-cake-like.
The door awakened and asked him to step forward another
four centimeters. He did. A thin red beam pinpricked out the peephole
and flittered over his features.
Face-recognition positive at three-thousand loci, a little
girls voice said in a polite Oxbridge accent. Welcome
home, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury.
The latch clacked. The door swung open. Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury stepped
into the soft yellow light and familiar music of his foyer. Gabriellis
trumpets emanated from the gray-green fitted carpet. An inviting scent
of apple cider perfumed the air. The door swung shut.
Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury, content and eiderdown snug, ambulated toward
the kitchen, the notion of a cup of Earl Grey and an ultrasonic shower
before bed waving primly to him from the distant borders of his awareness.
The tidy narrow foyer and hall were done in off-whites and olives
and boasted a coat rack, two small indecipherable watercolors in gilt
frames, a beveled mirror, and two cherrywood drop-leaf tables, on
each of which sat a lace doily and an electric oil lamp.
The electric oil lamps sensed his presence, glowed brighter, and greeted
him as he toddled past.
Welcome home, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury, they said in unison.
Thank you, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury replied.
In the kitchen the Wedgwood breakfast setting, designed to keep the
meals it hosted at a steady temperature, heard his voice and chimed
Welcome home, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury! it pipped.
Welcome home, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury, said the translucent
fishbowl light on the ceiling as he appeared in the doorway and surveyed
the small pink-and-white room.
Welcome home, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury, said the Maracaibo
microwave atop the white-tiled counter next to the Omsk coffee grinder
next to the Malindi faucets, one for hot water and one for cold, which
also saluted him, as did the miniature fridge, stove, dishwasher,
juice-maker, and even Panasonic bubble hoover in the closet.
No calls, no messages, the phone added after all the other
appliances had quieted down.
The help had departed for the weekend and wouldnt return till
Monday morning. These next hours were all his . . . to putter about
the flat, vada the telly, do a crossword puzzle or two. There he was,
alone and glad to be alone, and there was Mr. Charles Dickens waiting
for him upstairs in his library, and for these next twenty-four hours
he could extract his self-adjusting monocle from his waistcoat pocket,
slip into his silken smoking jacket, nestle into his recliner, and
live as if his king and queen were something more than history, deference
something more than memory, reality still built upon solid atoms with
hard little bodies and predictable little trajectories.
Tea, please, he said, with three-hundred seconds left
to live, remembering for some reason the woman he had seen from his
front window this afternoon, down on her hands and knees across the
street in her one-by-two-meter garden, cutting her cucumber-green
grass with shears, precise clips, and that component of the microwave
which needed to understand the doctor understood him, filled a compartment
of itself with water, agitated its molecules, and spritzed the boiling
product into a waiting faux-porcelain cup at the bottom of which bobbed
a tea strainer packed with Earl Grey.
Cream, sir? it asked.
A bit. Yes.
Hot white stream hissed.
Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury again rubbed the side of his bearded features
which didnt work anymore, consequence of the muscle virus that
surfaced long before the holiday to Switzerland and took his wife,
and took his son. Humming along with Gabrielli, he removed the strainer,
picked up the cup and, cradling it in his two hands, executed an exploratory
His heart stopped.
His face turned red as if hed just scrubbed it with a cheese
The cup bounced on the tiles and yipped.
Dr. Mizzle-Sluggburys mouth widened and his hands fluttered
up to his chest.
Next thing he knew he was lying on his back on the kitchen floor,
subaqueous light smarming around the blue-white ceiling, aware the
status of his demographics was shifting.
The impressive fact was how little the shift hurt. In Dr. Mizzle-Sluggburys
imagination, heart attacks had always taken the mass of great lumbering
elephants perching on ones chest. Only it wasnt like that
at all. It was more like strolling into a blast-furnace and then strolling
out again. Sensation vanished. Consciousness became a hairy fly, and
the hairy fly whirred up and around the room, agitated, disorientated,
banging into walls, bouncing off reflections, clambering for the cool
light it sensed burning just beyond the frontier of existence, peering
down occasionally through its compound perception at the well-dressed
walrus peering back, palms flat on the floor, stubby legs spread in
an unrefined V, mouth a pink orifice in a cumulus beard.
The fly flew backward in timeto this afternoon, to that woman
clipping cucumber-green grass with shears in her gardenand zigzagged
about her face. She was in her sixties. Her long gray hair was tugged
into a braid that corded down the rear of her blue-gray Mao suit almost
to her buttocks. Her face was plain, without makeup, without sunscreen,
and gravitational entropy was well into speaking its language upon
it, except for the neat slice of red lipstick she wore across her
mouth. When she raised her head and hand to swat away the fly, she
noticed Dr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury standing at his window, arms
by his sides, observing her, and the smileless swat blossomed into
the polite shadow of a wave before she lowered herself again to her
business. Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury nodded back, seeing, not the stranger
across the street, but his wife, Cynthia, laboring in their own garden
at their old flat in Chelsea the afternoon the doctor had told her
her muscles were infected with the new viral form of muscular dystrophy
that would gradually replace her healthy tissue with scarring and
She was dying, the doctor said, and there was nothing to be done about
Jarndyce accompanied her home. Cynthia stepped out of the car and
walked straightaway into the house and appeared in her blue-gray Mao
suit and went directly to work in the garden, snipping, chopping,
digging, patting, hewing, kneading. She wouldnt stop. The dusk
came and she wouldnt stop. The dark came and she wouldnt
stop. Jarndyce observed her patiently from the window, waiting, knowing
she needed to touch everything she could.
Now Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury became aware, as if from very far off, of
a nibbling at the legs of his trousers. He attempted to employ his
peripheral vision to determine what was happening.
The Panasonic bubble hoover, sensing an accident, had rolled out of
the closet and released its cockroach bots to clean up whatever mess
it might find. It had located the spilled tea and slurped the puddle
dry. It had located the dropped cup and carried it back into its stomach
where the maid would discover it Monday.
Then it located Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury himself, lying motionless in
an unnatural pose, and tried to raise him off the tidy tiled floor.
The hoover had never encountered such a large load of trash before
and the lifting wasnt going at all well. So it deceased and,
cooing and burring, processed this information.
A microsecond later, the cockroach bots switched programs and began
their meticulous banquet.
It occurred to Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury he could summon assistance if
he could only open his mouth and utter one word: help. The phone would
hear him and, comprehending the significance of the situation, ring
up an ambulance.
Only it seemed his whole organic electrical system had short-circuited
in one momentous thunderbolt.
His lips were numb.
His tongue was a lump of liver among his teeth.
Then he was that fly again, missiling from the strangers head
across the street and farther back in time . . . to the soggy interior
of a hired orange-red Fiat alongside a road no wider than a footpath
in northwest Scotland on the Isle of Skye.
Within the Fiat sat Cynthia, himself, and his son Jarndyce Jr. They
were on holiday and had seen more castles, shipyards, and farm-shrimp
ponds than they quite cared to. They were on their way to a remote
eighteenth-century inn Boswell and Johnson once visited on a craggy
precipice overlooking Loch Snizort to play croquet and watch gray
birds. They had just passed a solitary white farmhouse with a black-tiled
roof and stand of evergreens in a dense fog when they rounded a corner
and thunked into the rectangular-bodied ewe.
Condensation clouded the windscreen. Irregular droplets bifurcated.
Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury heard his family breathing.
Right, then, he said.
He looked at Jarndyce Jr., twelve and blond and cod-eyed, and swung
open the drivers door.
He stepped into dank rimy air.
Jarndyce Jr. hesitated several pulses and followed.
They walked back over cracked asphalt to where the ewe lay. The impact
had skidded her down the road and knocked one of her eyes out of her
black mask. Bright blood globbed around her nostrils and mouth. Her
rump was stained the color of thousand-island dressing. She panted
rapidly. Her legs moved as if she thought she were still running.
Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury loftily contemplated the animal, wandered off,
and returned with a stone the size of a loaf of bread.
Sometimes weve got to finish what weve begun,
he explained to his son. He handed him the stone.
weve got to do what weve got to do, and sometimes what
weve got to do isnt a pleasant thing in the least.
Jarndyce Jr. looked at the stone, at his father, at the sheep. His
eyes grew wider, intuiting for the first time how dangerous adults
Sometimes dying is part of not dying, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury
said. He looked over his sons head: a ditch, an incline, moors
sliding into silver light. Go on now.
Jarndyce Jr. cupped the stone in his hand. He examined the ewe.
Fast and sweet, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury primed. Think
of yourself in the same position. What would you ask if you could
ask one favor?
Jarndyce Jr. lowered himself onto his knees next to the ewe. Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury
observed his son observing himself. This was a moment, he knew, that
would enter his sons history.
Jarndyce Jr. raised the stone in both hands and brought it down heavily
on the ewes head.
He raised it and brought it down.
The ewe scrambled horizontally, trying to rise. Its skull dented a
little. More salad dressing appeared, this time around the exposed
The boy looked at what hed done, trying to organize his actions
in his mind.
Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury didnt let him.
Again . . . quickly.
Jarndyce Jr. stared at his work.
But it wont die, daddy.
Of course it will. Go on.
It just keeps living.
You must hit it harder.
Ive hit it hard as I can.
Jarndyce Jr.s nose sapped; he was about to cry.
Put your back into it.
But I . . .
Pick up the stone and put your back into it. Think of yourself
Jarndyce Jr. struck so hard the stone bounced out of his grip. The
ewe flinched . . . and, snap, there came a clatter of two-toed hoofs
on asphalt, a disgusted huff.
The animal was up, shaky, teetering, surveying its surroundings with
its one good eye.
Before either his son or Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury could internalize this,
the ewe clopped in a half-blind half-limp toward the edge of the road,
down into the ditch, and up into the tangled heather on the opposite
A moment, and it was lost in the fog.
Mizzle-Sluggbury came to understand that day just how much some things
wanted to live.
Which was the kind of lesson he forgot soon as he could, part of his
own complicated psychic survival reflex, till years later, in 2021,
after his wife Cynthia was gone, and his son Jarndyce Jr., when, one
amber afternoon in his lab on the top floor of his Knightsbridge flat
at 3 Hans Crescent on the corner of Basil Street, Anna Tesler-Huntingtons
lids slipped open, and her eyes swiveled about wildly, trying to place
herself in this future, trying to comprehend what existence held for
her beyond death, beyond the long horrific series of icy nightmares
that had structured her inverted reality for twenty-three years .
. . and simply couldnt.
Her eyes rolled up.
Her body began to buck.
Insect-egg foam formed on her lips.
And Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury saw something staring back at him from the
bottom of her black terror hed never expected to see: the bearded
features of his own vaguely puzzled specter of a face.