Henry Seton had a simulacrum of himself constructed, which he would place in his stead whenever his notoriously ill moods saw fit. Dinner, a night at the movies, a trip to see long-lost cousins—all these events Henry Seton's simulacrum enjoyed, with his wife at his side and three children in tow. The simulacrum was an artist's representation of Henry Seton, and thus was imperfect. Henry's sharp features were sculpted soft, his proud posture had been reduced to sloping shoulders and a hunched back, and his resonant voice was flattened, like a recording played in a padded room. Yet his imperfect imitation was accepted, and in time friends and family saw Henry's simulacrum as Henry himself.
Years later, after Henry had traveled the world by ship while his simulacrum maintained a responsible domestic life, Henry found himself back home. He returned a different man: graying hair, skin roughened and tanned by sun and sea spray, a limp from a knife wound suffered in Kamchatka. Walking past the homes he'd once called neighbors, Henry expected things would look much different. But it was all still there—the Milligan's blue house with a picket fence in need of a paint job, the Irving's yellow house with its pulsing sprinkler watering a crabgrass lawn—and to Henry it appeared as though time had stopped when he left, and was now slowly creaking to life with his return.
Henry knocked on his front door. He noted the blueberry bushes at the edge of the lawn, and the towering ash tree that had tripled in size since the morning he left. His wife opened the door. She wore a green house dress and was barefoot, and her feet looked soft and pale, the color of stripped bark. She put her hand to her chest. She stood, staring for a long time. Her shoulders sagged and her chin lowered, as though she had been warring against gravity for years and was now finally ready to surrender.
Henry gazed at his wife's wrinkles with sympathy because there were no oceans in her past. He imagined her years had been wasted staring out the kitchen window at the ash tree, watching its branches fork and lengthen, its leaves sprout and unfurl and shudder and fade. Time was hunger, Henry thought, and it ate without pause and left behind fading memories like hollowed bones. He felt he could see these bones scattered around his wife's bare feet.
I assume my simulacrum has taken good care of you, Henry said to his wife.
Your simulacrum has been gone for ten years, she said.
The artist warned me it might run away, he said. He said sometimes they become aware of what they are, and they long for other places.
Your simulacrum didn't run away, she said. It died.
Henry's wife explained their youngest daughter had fallen into a lake while boating with friends, and the simulacrum—standing on shore, letting the sun warm its peach-colored skin—heard her cries and ran into the water. No one had taught it how to swim; it drowned without realizing the necessity of oxygen, confused even as water filled its small lungs. The simulacrum's body was recovered later that day, caught in a rush of reeds by the lake's edge, its swollen face locked into an expression of wonderment.
Henry listened to his wife's other stories. They were a diary of the ordinary, filled with birthdays and graduations, career changes and surgeries, betrayals and reconciliations. All told, his wife said, we've had a good life. Your simulacrum treated us well. It stayed when you could not, and took on more responsibilities than we thought possible. We mourned its loss, not because it resembled you, but because it remained true to its creation—that of a husband, and a father.
Henry sat on the front step. He already missed the white scour of waves. The echo and circle of gulls. The musk of port cities. He stared across the lawn, at the ash tree with its slatted shadow thrown long and wide over the grass. He remembered the day he left: a hurried morning, filled with visits to his banker, his financial advisor, and his insurance company. His final visit had been to the artist's home, a loft in an old mill with painted cement floors and windows running floor to ceiling. There, standing in the glare of afternoon sun, the artist told Henry construction of his simulacrum needed more time. The simulacrum's capacity for emotion was too simplistic; it understood loyalty and little else. In its present state it could not function as a member of the community, much less as a husband or a father.
Henry spoke to his unfinished simulacrum later that day, on their way to the harbor. You cannot possibly understand my reasons for leaving, Henry said. Yet my family will ask you to explain, and you will feel a responsibility to answer. So tell them this: I have lived two lives as long as I have been a husband and a father. Both have been true, but one remains unfulfilled. That is the wisdom of my unsatisfying life. It is the best answer I know.
Henry ordered his simulacrum to help load his trunks onto the steamer vessel. They then sat in a small pub at the end of a cluttered alley, and shared a drink and a meal while waiting for the ship's crew. People passing by their table in the darkened corner of the bar asked if they were twins, and Henry told them Yes, we are, but I'm the handsome one. Henry remembered sharing a laugh with one such person, and the simulacrum had smiled dumbly. Not so dumbly, however. There was a tilt to its imperfect smile and a glimmer in its dull, milky eyes, Henry recalled. As if it was privy to something wonderful and secret.
Henry stared at the ash tree across his lawn and searched for the beginning of his stories. He had killed a man in Bushehr; slept with the daughter of a prince in Karachi; stolen a fortune in gold in Porto Alegre and wasted it all on pleasure. The bones of his memories were not hollow, he felt. There was no need to toss them aside. Nourishment could still be found like crumbled marrow dissolving on his tongue.
Henry's wife tapped him on the shoulder.
I suppose you want to see the children, she said.
If they will see me, Henry said.
I can't guarantee anything, she said.
Henry closed his eyes and listened. The chirp of sparrows sounded familiar, like the cries of a gull circling high over a ship's mast. His own breathing, rhythmic and strong, like the white scour of waves against a ship's hull. And the smell of the suburbs, of fresh cut grass and sun-baked sidewalks.
Henry spoke to his wife with his eyes closed: I can try to tell you the story of my life but I worry the memories will dissolve the moment I grasp for them. They will fade as if I were telling you a dream, as if I have been watching my life through a mirror, and now that I am ready to look away I can't remember which is me and which is my reflection.
Maybe you are another simulacrum, his wife said. A better simulacrum that has made its way back here, to what was your home.
Henry opened his eyes. He had heard whispers of such a possibility. Simulacrums made in such perfect imitation of their owners that they suffered the same longing for escape. But Henry had believed his simulacrum was unfinished. It understood loyalty and little else. The artist warned him it could not function as a member of the community, much less as a husband or a father. Much less as an unsatisfied man running from the hunger of time in search of sun and sea spray and the circling cry of gulls drifting high above port cities.
Suddenly everything was in bright focus: the white of his wife's bare feet, the small branches of the blueberry bushes, the gleaming sidewalk. Henry felt his pockets for his wallet. He looked at his brown leather shoes and tried to remember where he'd bought them. Bushehr? Karachi? Porto Alegre? Down the street?
I called out for you when you ran into the lake to save our daughter, Henry's wife said. But you didn't look back even as you realized you were drowning. You kept going. It was your most courageous moment.
Henry stood, slowly, and limped across the lawn, toward the ash tree. He strained to hear the echo of gulls. The threshing of waves. He touched the trunk of the ash tree and tried to remember the last time he'd run his fingers across its smooth bark.
All those years on an ocean vessel, Henry said to the tree. All those years and I never learned to swim.