We’re pleased to present an excerpt from Thomas Kendall’s novel The Autodidacts, out now on Whisk(e)y Tit. It follows a series of events that take place in the days and years that follow a man’s disappearance from a lighthouse, and the relics that he leaves behind. Dennis Cooper said that The Autodidacts is “as haunted as any fiction in recent memory.”
Start Repeat, 1982
He knew that when things ended, it took a long time for them to reach that end. That the way things ended was often the difference between dying and being murdered.
Henry watches the pile of hair that his mother has cut— that his foot herds underneath the square legged stool beneath him. He feels a sense of desperation clarifying itself in time with the growing pile of hair, a gut tightening anxiety building in the jailing tug of each half-accomplished movement. The central points of his body: stomach, groin, and heart all hurting with this gathering need.
His mother bends over his head. She is crying. Her tears seem random, unpunctuated.
Henry’s eyes shutter and close as his mother sweeps more hair into the maw of the scissors. He opens his eyes at the sound of the snip, searching for the drift of hair, imagining that it might be cradled by the air. It is gone, already fallen. He looks at the pile of hair again. The hair has not turned white as he predicted. Clumps of hair that should have revealed the huddled embers of their alarmed severance have only grown softer and more birdlike. Death wouldn’t ruffle them the way his shoe did.
A dollop of tear mistakes a fresh spot of Henry’s skull. He feels at it. His mother bends down before him, fussing over the line of his fringe. She cannot seem to get a good line on the hair, her two fingers unable to parallel one another, scooting spasmodically to the side, or pressing into each other with vibrating tension every time she tries to close in upon the fringe. Diane snips a wonky line. She says shit. At the same time, she places her hands over Henry’s ears.
Henry’s mother stands up and walks to the bathroom.
He watches her leave.
Diane returns with a pair of clippers in her hands. She ruffles Henry’s hair and pushes the switch of the clippers up with the base of her thumb in the other. The air whines around a torch of blades. The razor anoints the child. Henry’s head rolls back with the force of the clippers as a full hemisphere of hair is razed to the ground. Henry’s eyes swivel into contact with his mother’s. His mother tilting his head towards her the moment his lips begin to part.
– Where’s…where’s dad?
Diane presses a thumb into his neck and carefully shaves the pedestal of his skull.
– You have to be a good boy today Henry, remember you have to be a good boy. Look left, now straight at me.
Diane kneels before him now, the hair clinging to her knees. There is a wash-cloth in her hand and the hand goes roughly back and forth across the pebble of his face stinging his mouth and eyes with wisps of acrid soap. The rag withdraws and Henry’s pink face sputters and tastes itself as Diane doggedly tries to hold onto and reflect his expressions, her own face harnessed only by this increasingly panicked searching. The boy’s expressions remain a breathy spot in the centre of her vision that she can’t quite rub clear.
– Remember you have to be a good boy.
They stand in front of the horizontal mirror hanging next to the front door. Their reflections regard each other. Henry and his mother standing there like two seaside facades well out of season.