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Daydreams of angels, p.3
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.3

           Heather O'Neill

  I was sitting on the side of my bed, listening and thinking, when Jesus remarked on the cut on my arm. I got it when I crashed into a telephone pole while running and looking into people’s windows. Jesus held my arm and kissed it, and then, just like that, the cut turned into a scab. It was like I was in a dream, where funny things happen and you don’t try to question them.

  It was then I had a brainstorm. Our washing machine hadn’t been working for months, so I brought Jesus over to it and it turned on. It still made the same old awful clanking sound, but still, it was working. I brought my mother over to see and she tried to get Jesus to pick a lottery number for her, but he wouldn’t do it. Finally she gave up on getting it out of him and settled on using the numbers in his birthday and she won thirty-three dollars.

  * * *

  When the weather became nice, Jesus and I started hanging out in Jerusalem Park. There was a fountain there with a golden spout. The only problem with Jerusalem Park was all the older bums who hung out there and were always coming up to you. Sometimes they wanted to hit you up for change or smokes, but mostly they really wanted to mouth off about their hippy-dippy ideas.

  It was at the park that Jesus and I first met Jean-Baptiste. Even though it was spring, he was wearing a big brown fur coat and eating from a jar of honey with a plastic spoon. His legs were folded and, judging from his bare knees, he didn’t have anything on under his coat.

  Jean-Baptiste came up to us and said that seeing Jesus gave him a real déjà vu. Déjà vu was big among the hippie bums, it seemed.

  “It’s like I recognize you from when I was a kid,” said Jean-Baptiste, “but that would be impossible. I’m twice your age. Plus, I grew up in Winnipeg.”

  Jesus smiled politely. Jean-Baptiste looked at him in a knowing way.

  “We were born for terrible things to befall us, weren’t we?” said Jean-Baptiste.

  He kissed his palm and put it on Jesus’ forehead.

  “Are you wacko?” I shouted at Jesus. “Don’t let him do that. You’re going to get hepatitis.”

  “You think this boy is afraid of germs?” Jean-Baptiste laughed. “He has a pure spirit. He wants everyone’s germs.”

  “I don’t know, Mister,” I said. “Not everyone likes to roll around in the dirt like you do.”

  “He sure does. He’s got a Messiah complex. He’d put it on the line for anyone, anywhere, anytime!”

  For some reason this made me sick and scared. And angry. I was angry we had even stopped to talk to him.

  “If you’re so smart,” I said, “go find yourself a job.”

  And then I grabbed Jesus by the hand and together we ran out of the park.

  * * *

  That was the last time I ever saw Jesus. He had karate lessons with Judas that night and they were supposed to take the bus downtown together like they usually did, except that night Judas never showed up. His mother gave him a lift and he figured Jesus would put two and two together and head downtown on his own once he saw he wasn’t coming, but Jesus probably just stayed sitting on the bus bench, waiting. Judas always said he really regretted that.

  The story went that Jesus was abducted, but nobody can really say for sure. The thing is, he would have been really easy to kidnap. Jesus trusted everyone. He probably walked right into the kidnapper’s car without any hesitation.

  There were pictures of Jesus plastered to every telephone pole in the city, and practically the whole school had to be treated for post-traumatic stress syndrome. It seemed like no one could get the image of him walking into that kidnapper’s car out of their heads.

  This one kid in our gang, Peter, said he saw Jesus in the park three days after he vanished, walking across the kiddie pool. But you couldn’t believe what Peter said. He’d become totally obsessed with Jesus after the disappearance. Every composition he wrote in class was about him. The teachers said that it was his own way of coping with the stress.

  I guess I was dealing with some serious stress of my own, because one day in art class, when the teacher told me that little girls who wore black tank tops didn’t get into college, I stood up and yelled, “What makes you so perfect, you jerk! You’ve done too many lousy things yourself to be judging children!” And the teacher got all red in the face because he knew it was the truth.

  I knew that Jesus would have loved that one. It was the kind of thing that he would say, and it felt good to say it.


  It all began with a very young scientist named Vladimir Latska, who lived and worked in Moscow. He had graduated from university in 1949 when he was eleven years old, and for a time he was often seen on television and heard on the radio, babbling prettily about cells and biology. He had big blue eyes and he would tilt his chin up to the heavens when he lectured, as if to accentuate his concern with lofty spiritual matters. His hair stuck straight up in the air, which was all the rage among young geniuses at the time, and he wore the same shabby suit covered in soup stains for three years straight, as he was too profound to bother changing his clothes. He waved his hands excitedly when he spoke. It was as if he was a conductor and the world was his orchestra, and he was trying to get it to perform a magnificent concerto. He almost danced when he spoke about science, lecturing at times on his tippy-toes. It made him beloved by audiences even when, at times, they didn’t understand a word he was saying. They would line up after his lectures on genetics to have an opportunity to pinch his cheeks.

  After several years in the laboratory, he went to the government and announced that he had discovered a way to clone animals. To prove it, he had with him a cage filled with white kittens that he declared were identical and were all named Boris. The kittens were all curled up together, like a pile of snowballs that had been patted together by small mittened hands in preparation for a war. Latska quoted dozens of poems, explaining the wonders of cloning and the beauty of multiplicity. Of course no one believed him, and they weren’t sure why they had arranged to have a meeting with this teenager. The officials held up the kittens and claimed they saw subtle differences. Latska offered to take them to his laboratory outside the city, where he had thousands of additional cloned Borises running around on his property. They laughed because there didn’t seem to be a point in having three thousand kittens named Boris, and what with the Soviet Union being what it was in 1955, they were very busy.

  Never living up to his early potential, Latska began to be seen more as a flamboyant entertainer than anything else. The world had all but forgotten him when, years later, in 1961, Rudolf Nureyev, the country’s most exciting young dancer, ran screaming to the police at an airport in Paris, demanding to stay. Nureyev defected, much to the government’s and the Soviet people’s dismay. It was considered so damaging to Soviet propaganda that it was kept out of the national press, and the government tried to pretend Nureyev had never existed. “Rudolf who?” was the official party line. The rest of the world, however, went batshit crazy, in a manner of speaking, for Nureyev, celebrating his every movement, putting him on the cover of magazines and catapulting him to fame. That was when Vladimir Latska chose to return, approaching the government this time with a proposal that they found intriguing. Latska claimed that through cloning, he could deliver back to Russia a new and improved Nureyev.

  The government decided to give Latska a chance. They gave him a vial of blood that a nurse had collected from Nureyev during a routine checkup, and almost unlimited resources for the project. Ordered to keep the operation absolutely top secret, Latska and his men, a group of unemployed scientists and unlicensed doctors from the countryside outside Moscow, got into planes and headed to a small town in northern Quebec called Pas-Grand-Chose. In addition to being a desirable location because of its isolation, its proximity to tundra, and the fact that it had not had a tourist in a hundred years, the town was also singled out because of its high unemployment rate. It had been the country’s largest manufacturer of bloomers, and when they went out of style after 1941, the citiz
ens of the town found themselves in dire straits. The area had the broken, random look of a train set that a child had abandoned years before. The Canadian government turned a blind eye as the town welcomed the project with open arms, hastily constructing a makeshift enclosure around Pas-Grand-Chose in preparation for the arrival of the covert scientists.

  Banned from most universities, Latska’s team of misfit scientists was also wildly enthusiastic about the idea of regular work. Vladimir Latska believed that the only worthwhile scientists were the mad ones. Other scientists asked too many questions about the implications of their research, never taking the irrational leaps of faith necessary for true discovery. Latska believed that the Nureyev Experiment was really a magnificent project, certain to be a shoo-in for the Nobel Prize and to reestablish his credibility. Latska put an ad in the newspaper looking for homes for his three thousand kittens named Boris. He took only one Boris with him, though, that being all he really needed. Perhaps he should have taken it as a sign that we only really need one of a good thing.

  There was a parade in Pas-Grand-Chose for all the mad scientists when they got off the plane. They were a curious sight with their hair sticking straight up in the air, their bottle-cap glasses and their briefcases that had smoke coming out of them. They had cardboard boxes filled with beakers and Dungeons & Dragons sets. None of them had girlfriends.

  With a bunch of Nureyevs, the Soviet government would be able to open shows every night in every major city in the world. They could even have two or three of them touring together so that they wouldn’t get tired. They could do three-month engagements, and if one broke an ankle or had a nervous breakdown, it wouldn’t be a problem in the least. They had put a spacecraft on the moon, and now this! Nureyev would be sorry that he had thought himself unique. He was replaceable. It was the Soviet Union that was unique.

  * * *

  There were twelve Nureyevs cloned in 1961. The scientists and indeed the whole town were reverent of the handsome little Nureyev boys. Everyone was in awe of the fact that these children were actually the greatest dancer of the twentieth century. The boys walked around town in fancy little suits, carrying red balloons, and everyone kissed them and told them how wonderful they were.

  The scientists were determined to give the Nureyevs happy childhoods. Whereas the real Nureyev had only been able to join a professional dance school when he was seventeen, these Nureyevs had dance classes starting when they were five years old. They would learn both Russian from the scientists and French, which was the language of ballet, from the inhabitants. They wouldn’t have a father who would be away at the front for most of their childhoods and who hated their dancing. They wouldn’t have to wear the same shabby velvet coat for a decade, go hungry on a regular basis and live during a devastating war. This way, the carefree clones would be even greater dancers than the actual Nureyev had ever been. The scientists shivered with joy when they imagined the results.

  These first Nureyevs were raised in happy, middle-class, two-parent families who adored them and showered them with praise. They were given puppies, had fairy tales read to them and were given holidays on the banks of the Saint-Laurent River. They went to puppet shows. An effort was made to paint everything pink and blue and green.

  Cartons of butterflies were brought in from Brazil and were let loose in the town square. It looked as though someone had opened a window while a nerd was working on her stamp collection and the wind had lifted them all up in the air. The children ran around with their arms stretched out in joy. The butterflies died of shock and fell to the ground hours later, but they were quickly swept up by groundskeepers. The townspeople made the boys crowns of dandelions and daffodils to wear on their heads, telling them that everything was always going to be all right.

  However, to the scientists’ dismay, when this generation of Nureyevs became teenagers, they had very little interest in dance. They were sensible and well balanced, and so they wanted more reliable careers, ones that promised economic security. They wanted to become political attachés and commodity traders.

  Those who could dance did so with proficiency but had no edge. No one would be throwing underwear at them, let’s put it that way.

  One of the boys was given a biography of Nureyev to read. A scientist thought he would be inspired by the glory and fame that Nureyev had achieved. Instead, the young clone was horrified. He shared the book with the other clones, who were equally shocked. All they took away from the biography was how rude and irritable the dancer had been, how miserable and conceited, and how difficult and unpredictable life as an artist was. They slammed the book shut, like a folk dancer pounding his foot on the floor to announce the end of an act.

  * * *

  With the next generation of Nureyevs, the scientists decided they’d try a less hands-on approach. They hired local childless women to raise the Nureyevs. The scientists allowed them to be raised unsupervised, in order that they might have normal childhoods.

  But it was found that the mothers had too much influence on the Nureyevs. One of the mothers spent all her time watching medical dramas on television. This boy grew up wanting to be a surgeon. He wore a white bathrobe around the neighbourhood, carrying a clipboard and insisting on checking other children’s pulses. Another mother was very good at making cupcakes. To the scientists’ consternation, her little Nureyev announced that he was going to open his own bakery and name it Jeannette’s Delight, in honour of his mother.

  Then, rather disturbingly, one of the clones opted for a career playing the accordion. The scientists tried to account for this abnormality. After questioning his mother, they found that she had sung a Parisian ditty about the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to him when he was a little boy. Now he wore a black beret, smoked all the time and had changed his name to Pierre Gaston. His cigarette smoke wavered above his head like a French philosopher’s thought bubbles. The shock of this forced the scientists to reexamine their methods altogether.

  When the Russian government read Pierre Gaston’s self-published volume of poetry, called A Lonely Winter on the Seine, they withdrew significant funding.

  * * *

  Exasperated, the scientists decided to make one group of young clones dance like Nureyev by force. These young boys had to endure eight hours of training a day. The dance instructors humiliated and hit the boys when they messed up their steps. The callous teachers threatened to murder their dogs if they didn’t execute their pirouettes perfectly. They wouldn’t let them eat unless they managed a grand jeté. Half-starved Nureyevs would crouch in the corner, massaging their aching legs and whimpering unhappily. So joyless was this group that they barely resembled boys anymore.

  This was indeed a dark period. They practised so much that they didn’t even have a chance to change out of their leotards. You would see a sixteen-year-old Nureyev, in a black leotard with little red sequins and boots, standing outside for but a moment, trying to figure out who he really was. His sequins glimmered like a distant galaxy whose constellations were emitting their tragic messages in Morse code.

  Nonetheless, the scientists achieved some surprising successes with this group at first. As a whole, this generation was composed of remarkably skilled dancers. But by the age of seventeen, when they should have been ready for an adoring public, they hated dancing with a fervour. So repelled were they by the thought of spending their lives on stage, they began to sabotage their dancing careers. They were known to jump off the roofs of two-storey houses. This wouldn’t kill them, but it was almost certain to break both their ankles. They threw themselves out of cars. One ate hamburgers all day, and he became so fat that he couldn’t jump at all anymore. One would close his eyes when passing ponds, so that he didn’t have to look at swans reaching about gracefully with their necks. He ended up falling in and drowning.

  It is almost impossible to believe that these dark events took place. It is hard to get anyone to admit to having taken part in these Nureyev years. Participants explain how their own jobs and
livelihoods were on the line. The events scarred everyone, especially Latska, who was known for wanting to bring whimsy back to science. This project was turning into something ugly.

  * * *

  The government threatened to withdraw funding anytime one of these generations of Nureyevs didn’t work out. The project was diverting money from Olympic teams, the circus and outer space. It was with some level of desperation that Project Siberia was launched.

  Project Siberia generated the most press in relation to what The Globe and Mail referred to as “the Nureyev Debacle.” It is always brought up in documentaries about the subject as evidence of the insanity of the project as a whole. There was, however, a very clear method behind the madness. The scientists were, in essence, looking for the missing link that would turn Nureyev the man into Nureyev the dancer. They weren’t quite sure what they were leaving out, so they decided to omit nothing whatsoever. A large-scale effort was put into place to more accurately simulate the conditions and main events of Nureyev’s actual childhood. Nureyev was famously born on the Trans-Siberian train near Irkutsk, Siberia, and he often cited that as being the most romantic event of his life and symbolic of everything that followed. He had been raised in the town of Ufa, south of the Ural Mountains. The scientists tried to make the part of the town where the clones were cloistered resemble the time and place where Nureyev had come into this world, opened his eyes and decided who he was going to be.

  The Nureyevs were told that their country was engaged in a great war and that all the men were at the front fighting. The scientists had citizens walk around with crutches and with their heads bandaged in order to appear as if they had recently returned from the front. Everyone wore sheepskin hats and leather boots. Citizens were supposed to dress up as soldiers. It didn’t seem to particularly matter what war they were supposed to be taking part in. Teenagers opted to wear red military band jackets with gold buttons and piping, looking more like members of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band than soldiers. It became trendy for girls to wear grey caps resembling those worn by Confederate soldiers in the American Civil War.

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