Cranial

by Peter Lollo

 

      From the ages of roughly one to seven, Ignatius was a certified child genius. Yes, certified.
      Of course, initially, no one would have dared to suspect such a thing. Barb, the boy’s mother, was praying for “average”. The doctor who handled the birth would have called this optimistic; indeed, anyone in that horrible hospital room would have done so.
      What was so strange about the infant? Foremost, his brain was gargantuan. It was a massive 6.6 pounds compared to the 4.6 of an average adult. No one could see his brain, of course. His head, however, was a different story–no one could avoid seeing that. From its very first days in the womb, the head had suffered. Throughout the nine months, it had been forced into obscene proportions during the struggle to accommodate its steadily-expanding, increasingly obese tenant. At the end of the gestation period, the fibers of the boy’s skull were stretched to the limits of their structural plasticity. The fetus resembled nothing so much as a balloon waiting to burst.

      Thankfully this did not happen. Still, the birthing process had its ramifications, how could it not? The physics alone behind trying to fit such a large and disproportionate snailobject through such a confined space are amazing. As it exited the womb, the boy’s skull, stretched as far as the bone could allow, was as malleable as a lump of butter. This lump, already stretching the limits of human resemblance, was forged in the fires of the birth canal into something obscene. Each shuddering contraction compacted the bone. Every seizing of the pubococcygeus muscle shaped what was to come.
      When the child finally exited her uterus, Barb fell back onto the hospital cot. “Fell” despite the fact that she was already lying down. Her body collapsed so thoroughly that not even the post-partem contractions elicited a visible response. She lay atop a mess of hair so bedraggled and wild it seemed a distinct creature all of its own. She panted there for a full minute, alone in her delirium. Then she rose up, the ragged beast scampering up alongside, just as the doctor moved to hand her the child.
      The boy’s head was really not so monstrous as it may have thus far been made out to seem. True, the birthing process had necessarily compressed the skull into its most physio-dynamic form. But the end result was that the boy’s head resembled nothing so much as a giant, fleshy football set vertically atop a puny body. At first glance, Barb even thought the look somewhat “cute”. Of course, this may have been an overly euphemistic description and perhaps one borne of delirium. Likely she would have refined the term over time: first to “unique”, perhaps followed by “individual” or “different”. Terminology notwithstanding, she certainly would not have seen any reason for alarm were it not for the actions taken by the doctor.
      After a few first caresses, Barb noticed a pamphlet which had been tucked into the swaddling around the newborn. She took it out and read the title: Your Slightly Off Offspring. Barb looked up to find the doctor watching. He looked back with calm, sympathetic, medically-licensed eyes.
      For his part, Ignatius had also seen and read the pamphlet’s title. While no one could have foreseen this capability of the boy’s, Ignatius nevertheless felt highly offended. He turned and glared with narrowed eyes at the doctor. Unfortunately, the eyebrows had not yet formed on the infantile face. Without these crucial indicators of expression, the look of anger didn’t come off quite right. Instead, the narrowed eyes only enhanced the impression that there was indeed something off.
      Barb, already prone to anxiety, began to worry.
      After a few weeks however, these fears proved baseless. Barb was relieved to find her son’s development proceeding quite normally. Aside from the cranium, he was a model baby. He cried rarely, slept like the dead, and received utensil-borne shipments of gruel with the aplomb of a seasoned air traffic controller. One month and fourteen re-readings later, the doctor’s pamphlet found its way into the trash.
      But while the normal development was doing wonders for Barb’s stress levels, it was somewhat unfortunate for poor Ignatius. There lay a tortuous gap between the boy’s titanic intellect and his infantile motor skills. It was an arduous nine months before his muscular control developed enough to allow him the autonomy to extract himself at will from cribs, booster chairs, and other mobility traps. Another four months passed before vocal chords tightened enough to allow his first words.
      It should be noted that up until this point Ignatius had been treated like any other infant. As any adult knows, it is terrible to be “treated like a child”; it is even worse to be “treated like an infant”. For thirteen agonizing months, Ignatius was fed slop, baby talked, cooed–laughed–and–pointed at, and swaddled in rocketship pajamas–experiencing early on the suffering of a misunderstood genius. (Although, admittedly, he was pissing and shitting on himself the whole time.)
      Thus, when the boy’s first words finally came they rang out like cannons. They did not come puttering out in stalls and fits. No, the words were ejected in a veritable dogtorrent of verbastic power. And more than simply words, these first utterings also fit neatly and grammatically together into Ignatius’ first sentences. Moreover, these sentences, ignoring the brief sick-up that punctuated them, even combined to form the boy’s first hypothesis: a theory on the mating habits of a local arachnid population.

 
      It was dinner time when that final vocal muscle decided to tighten. Ignatius, Barb, Daryl (Barb’s boyfriend at the time), and Carl (the next door neighbor), were all present. The table featured a pile of chicken legs and steamed kale, with some of the aforementioned slop set in front of Ignatius. After each member had seated themselves, a lively dinner table discussion ensued. Eventually, the recent plunge in San Francisco’s victorian real estate market came up–a very serious topic for Barb (and by extension, Daryl) given that she owned a particularly gorgeous and gorgeously expensive victorian. All the adults shared the comments they each had heard from this or that media outlet. The general consensus being that the epidemic could not carry on much longer; that the scientists would soon solve the mystery behind the highly poisonous spiders; that soon all the facts regarding the arachnids would become clear: where they had come from, why they seemed to nest only in the nooks and crannies of the famous moulding facades of San Francisco’s Victorian homes, and, most importantly, how to efficiently find and kill the creatures.
      It was during this discussion that Ignatius interrupted with his own thoughts on the subject. ‘If I may,’ the infant began as six bulging eyes turned toward him, ‘what I’ve gathered from the toxicologist’s reports on the cause of death seems to indicate that the spiders possess an entirely new type of venom, one whose cause I would like to ascribe not to genetic mutation but instead to the mating of two well-known spiders, and I’m speaking here about loxosceles reclusa, commonly known as the Brown Recluse, and latrodectus hesperus, or the Black Widow. Such a union could have led to the formation of a new and highly toxic type of venom which–urghl um–excuse me a second please–’
      Here Ignatius had a sick-up, probably from the prolonged use of his diaphragm muscles which had hitherto remained largely dormant. Although this incident was mildly embarrassing for the boy, it was brief enough that he was able to regain himself and carry on with his hypothesis while entertaining the delusion that everyone would assume he had simply had a fit of coughs.
      ‘–which, as I was saying, would explain the seeming redundancy in the venom’s fatal properties, the venom attacking on three levels: brain, musculature, and epidermis, through a slew of different neuro and hemotoxins.
      ‘Now it is only my theory, and of course the idea is still in its infancy, but what if, what if this did happen? It’s possible. All it would take is if one foggy day a man returning to his beautiful victorian home after a long day of work decided he wanted a fire. And so he went out into his little yard, which I’m told are little stretches of land behind a house where nothing has been built, and brought back inside a few logs which he had prudently set aside to dry beneath a tarp earlier that season. Unbeknownst to him however, and this is still all postulation of course, perhaps somewhere within that log pile there was both a brown recluse and a black widow, both of whom are well-known to nest in wood piles, though rarely near each other. But perhaps the spiders were never even that close to each other until the man randomly, coincidentally, unfortunately, happened to select their two separate logs and thus brought them together in a way that the two spiders never would have chosen to do themselves.
      And get this, what if then, when the man began the fire with a little bit of kindling, and when it really got going, he picked up one of the logs to put it into the fire–just one of the logs though, as he wanted the fire to last a little while into the night. And it’s entirely possible that this one log might have been the one with the brown recluse in it.
      ‘And now this log is hefted into the air, with the spider still dangling from it, having no idea whatsoever about what kind of calamity is going on, just trying to hang on tight anyway he can, gripping the log which is all he’s ever known with his eight jointed legs and some kind of wild strength. But then all of a sudden there’s the heat of the fire on his hairy back, and brown recluses you know don’t like fire–who does when it’s that close?–and so he starts scrambling away from it as quick as he can, hurdling over logs and kindling and flames, falling through ash and soot, until finally emerging, coughing, out onto the brick overlay on the floor surrounding the fireplace, which is probably just a stunning bit of craftsmanship–the brick overlay is. And now this spider, entirely blind and covered in black ash, somehow, perhaps by the grace of god, or his scent, or some innate honing sense privy only to spiders, makes his way back to the pile of logs beside the fireplace, seeking salvation from the tragedy he has barely escaped. To his surprise though, when he reaches the logs he finds that the black widow, herself partly blind from the smoke and all sex crazed as black widows are, has spotted him beetfrom her nest and mistaken him, all covered in soot as he was, for a male black widow.
      ‘So now the coughing, blinded recluse, exhausted from his travails, is set upon by this widow and is completely unable to either defend or explain himself, nor can we be entirely sure that he would have wanted to even if he could have, and so, you know, one thing leads to another, and this and that goes on, and you know, well all of the sudden the world has one more breed of highly toxic spider brewing and fighting for room with a now-masticated brown recluse inside the belly of a very satiated black widow.’
      Ignatius had been standing atop his booster chair during the speech. He sat back down now. His eyes moved around the table’s silent occupants as he tried with his left hand to inconspicuously brush a little bit of vomit from his bib. He was unsuccessful.
      From that point on, vomit or no, no one could doubt Ignatius’ intelligence. (Never mind that he never explained how the black widow escaped her own fiery death, nor any of the difficulties associated with phylogenetic compatibility. It was only his first theory after all.) This was also the point at which the incontinent tables turned; Mother, father, neighbor Carl–everyone lost their shit.
      What would you have done if a heretofore gurgling and chubby one-year-old, rubber neck sagging under a swollen cranium and fat fingers wagging through the air, suddenly started postulating evolutionary linkages between two distinct species of spider?
      ‘He’s a genius’ said Barb.
      ‘He’s a freaking genius’ said Daryl.
      ‘I need to use the bathroom,’ said neighbor Carl.
      The statements were then followed by a communal bathroom break.

 
      Later that night, after the emotions had settled, Barb and Daryl were lying together in bed when Daryl whispered something into the darkness.
      ‘What?’ asked Barb.
      ‘Goddamned spiders.’
      ‘Oh, yes. What do we do?’
      ‘They’ll think of something.’

 
      When Ignatius was sixteen months, Barb was suddenly caught up in some need to externally verify the intellect level of her son. Thus, Ignatius was temporarily removed from his high school classes and led by Barb through a whirlwind of validification exams over the next month. There were CAT scans in the hospital, IQ tests at the national certification center for child geniuses, and even a diagnostic overview by San Francisco’s very own, very exclusive League of Geniuses–each of which respectively certified, confirmed, and conceded that Ignatius was indeed a genius.
      When he exited the final exam Ignatius saw that his mother was crying. He asked her what was wrong.
      ‘I’m just so happy. You can do anything.’
      Many people–teachers, fellow students, doctors–had already told him the same thing. They would continue to tell him the like for the next six years. As a result, Ignatius’ already swollen cranium expanded slightly further, accommodating the endless possibilities of infinite dreamed futures.

 
      Whether motivated by fear or based on some life principles, Barb wanted to ensure Ignatius a normal childhood. Reporters were rebuffed, Hollywood overtures denied, and job offers out of the question. At the age of two, Ignatius was enrolled in a public school. By six he was in his final year of high school. Throughout his schooling, he was well-behaved, did well obviously, and was bullied even more obviously. The whole affair would be entirely unnoteworthy were it not for the events of one day in particular.
      When Ignatius was seven, outside during second recess, a boy and girl he had never seen approached him. They introduced themselves, enjoined him in a brief dialogue, and then asked if he would like to climb the school flagpole. Ignatius agreed. Normally a very straight-laced boy, he would have never done anything so clearly against the rules, but the chance for social contact was too much to pass up.
      So it was that all three children climbed to the top of the pole. And so it was that all three sat together atop the brass ball atop the pole. And so it was that all three eventually lost balance and fell from atop the brass ball atop the pole.
      The boy and girl were immobilized. Ignatius received a hairline skull fracture in addition to a blinding headache, but was at least able to walk. He got up from the ground and piestumbled away in a concussed state before any teachers had been alerted to the accident.
      In this rare state of absent-mindedness, Ignatius ended up wandering directly into the backfield of the state champion high school football team’s practice. As it had rained the previous day, the ground was muddy. And as the proportions of Ignatius’ body were such as they were, he was extraordinarily top heavy. For the second time that day, Ignatius lost his balance and slipped, falling face first into the mud.
      At about this same time, the running back Kevin Keith, who was built like a cannonball and twice as dense, was running a standard wide right sweep when he also happened to slip, fumbling the football. The loose ball took a strange bounce and went sailing in Ignatius’ direction, sending 22 hunks of meat lunging after it.
      Ignatius was at this point covered in mud and just beginning to raise himself off the ground. Unfortunately, the mud’s viscosity left him partially blinded while the brown earthen color helped to complete the effect already begun by the recreational shape of his head. Also, some of the earth had found its way into his esophagus, causing him to cough incessantly. Thus he did not see the wave of meat about to descend upon him, nor was he able to explain to the frenzy of biceps and knuckles that this particular football had a body attached and a precious brain inside.
      Four days, one CAT scan, an EKG, and several bloodlettings later, Ignatius’ life was saved. Unfortunately, his brain tissue had ruptured, causing massive swelling. The cranial congestion had necessitated the bloodletting. Even though the procedure had lay in the supple hands of the man commonly regarded as the world’s best brain surgeon, the immense power of Ignatius’ brain was lost. Over the course of four days, Ignatius’ brain had shrunk to an average size. His skull, still in its youthful, more malleable stages, had followed suit, shrinking to an average or perhaps slightly less than average size.
      On the upside, Ignatius would no longer be mistaken for, nor deliberately compared to, any sort of recreational ball. However, he would also live a life of ordinary intelligence. If there was any hope that he might one day regain his former intellect, it was dashed when the LOG received his most recent CAT scan. The boy’s membership was immediately stripped.
      The loss was devastating for Ignatius. While he no longer acted, talked, thought, or looked like a genius, he still had the dreams of a genius. You see, dreams, ethereal creatures as they are, are much more compressible than regular brain tissue. Thus, all of Ignatius’ dreams, even those most extravagant and exorbitant ones, were able to continue existing inside his shrunken head.
bug      So it was that the poor boy found himself desperately trying to achieve things which were no longer possible for him. After many of these trials, which are simply too sad and upsetting to detail in any great length, the boy let himself into a neighbor’s yard. After a brief search, he found a pile of logs beneath a tarp set against a back fence. Removing the tarp, the boy crouched down to inspect the dark areas between the logs. It was with one eye pressed against this darkness that the boy rolled a log to give himself a better look. He stared into the black gap, hoping to find a creature that might bolster a theory of his; a theory which in these economic times could prove highly lucrative.
      The boy thought he saw something move. He leaned in closer.
      Even he had to admit to himself that the theory was a bit of a stretch. But for this same reason, it was also a theory that, if proven, could launch him onto a path toward fame and greatness. With this thought in mind, the boy leaned further forward. He shifted another log and leaned forward still more. He thought he saw something move again. In his rush to catch whatever it was that had created the motion, the boy inched still closer, and doing so brought his face entirely into the dark.

 
 
Peter Lollo currently stands as the world’s leading expert in barbecue sauce.