“A Natural State”

Lily Tuck

March 31, 2020 
The following is an excerpt from Lily Tuck's short story collection, Heathcliff Redux. Tuck is the National Book Award-winning author of seven novels, has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2018.

My name is Yon Yonson,
I live in Wisconsin.
I work in a lumber yard there.
The people I meet as
I walk down the street,
They say “Hello!”
I say “Hello!”
They say “What’s your name.”
I say: My name is Yon Yonson . . .

The absurd jingle replays in her head. My name is Yon Yonson, live in Wisconsin . . . What is the guy’s name?

In the last few hours, he has sent her dozens of emails. Crazy. He must be crazy. He writes that he is Swedish.

You don’t know me, Claire, but I know you. I know all about you. About your time as a Rajneeshee. 14. jan. 2018. kl. 11:16 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

Despite their blond good looks, there are a lot of crazy people in Sweden, she thinks. And a lot of crime as well.

She thinks of Kenneth Branagh, who is not Swedish but who plays Wallander, the Swedish detective who, once a week, solves one grisly murder after the other. Then there are the novels of Joe Nesbø, featuring the shrewd alcoholic Harry Hole, and those of Peter Høeg, introducing nervy, sardonic Smilla Jaspersen, which describe in lurid detail how all those beautiful Swedes are getting decapitated, dismembered, disemboweled . . .

Is it the darkness? she wonders. The lack of sun?

In real life, too. The man who gunned down a bunch of kids who were camping on that island—what was his name?

Anders Behring Breivik.

Yann Johansen is the emailer’s name, and in another email to her, he quotes Adi Shankara:

“All the manifested world of things and beings are projected by imagination upon the substratum which is the Eternal All-pervading Vishnu, whose nature is Existence-Intelligent; just as the different ornaments are all made out of the same gold.” 14. jan. 2018. kl. 11:20 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

Quickly followed by another email saying he knew she had been a follower of Bhagwan.

Then another:

Believe me, Claire, I am the real thing. My body is functioning in a perfect natural way. Not like your phony Bhagwan. 14. jan. 11:25 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

Still another:

He’s the crazy one, Claire. 14. jan. 2018 kl. 11:28 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>.

How, she wondered, had he found her?

A long time ago—thirty-four years to be exact—she had posted online an account of her time as a Rajneeshee. This Yann person must have found it and read it.

Did you sleep with Bhagwan? Truth is important. Isn’t that what he told you? Did you sleep with him? 14. jan. 11:34 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

Of course, she won’t answer him.

My name is Yon Yonson, I live in Wisconsin. . .

She and Pete, her boyfriend at the time, backpacked in India for several months, and, always, they ran into the same people, also backpacking, in youth hostels, on buses and trains: Brits, Australians, a handsome French couple—Anouk and Philippe. She will never forget them—how intrepid they were. And they were the ones who suggested they go to Poona.

To the ashram.

You must have been a good-looking young girl. A sexy-looking girl in your red dress. Or did you wear red pants? Ha ha. 14. jan. 2018 kl. 11:41 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

In Poona, Pete got dysentery. It got so bad that he couldn’t stop shitting—a painful yellow stream. The doctor in the ashram started out by giving him herbal medicines—teas, infusions—but they didn’t work. He then tried giving him other stuff—Claire is not sure what—drugs of some kind, but those only made Pete feel worse. He said he felt like he was going out of his head.

Then, too, Pete had started to cry. Cry like a baby. She had felt sorry for him but she also had started to dislike him—hate him, actually. It was so unseemly. Eventually, Pete left and went back home. Relieved, Claire stayed on in Poona with Anouk and Philippe.

Claire did sleep with Philippe. She slept with Anouk as well. She slept with them both.

Claire, Claire, I am suffering here. No one understands my transformation! Please answer me! 14. jan. 2018 kl. 11:49 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

She fell in love with Anouk. And yet, as far as she knows, she is not gay. Since, she has been married (twice) and has had a number of affairs with men; also she has had two children. Doesn’t that count?

Perhaps she should answer and tell him to stop emailing her. Better yet, just delete the emails.

Where is Anouk now? she wonders. She has not thought of her in years—not quite true—in, more accurately, quite some time. Is Anouk, like Claire, a woman of a certain age, and living somewhere in France? On a farm, perhaps. An orderly and healthy life tending to her garden, to her cats (Claire remembers how, in Poona, dozens of feral cats roamed around, and how Anouk fed them). No doubt she has a husband—not Philippe, Claire ventures to guess— children, and grandchildren by now. Claire pictures Anouk, always trim and athletic—beautiful, really—bicycling on a country lane bordered by fields where red poppies grow in abundance.

At the time, she had written it as a sort of justification. After all, Rajneesh had offered and given her much—freedom, pleasure (not just sex), a feeling of community. Also, she had liked how he was against religion. Religion, he said, was a luxury and prayer just a plea. He was against politicians and priests, and that, too, had appealed to her.

I know you are reading this, Claire. You can’t resist. You can’t help yourself, you are addicted the same way people are addicted to cigarettes and to alcohol and to drugs—especially to drugs. 14. jan. 2018 kl. 12:06 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

But in Oregon, things changed. The atmosphere was no longer so joyful, so carefree, so friendly. No more singing and dancing. No more fucking. Instead there grew rivalries and resentments. And everyone had to work, often twelve hours a day. She painted rooms in the newly built houses—the same off-off-white color—and Anouk had to cook in the canteen. Everyone was tired. Also it snowed and no one was used to the cold. To make matters worse, Bhagwan decided not to speak for three years. His self-imposed silence was disturbing.

Eventually, Anouk and Philippe left. Philippe was the one who wanted to go. He had been put to work mixing cement and he kept saying, “J’en ai marre” and Anouk, who wanted to stay, always answered him with “Tu me fais chier.” Claire can still hear the tone of Anouk’s voice and how she said it with such disdain. They argued a lot, but, in the end, Philippe won and they went back to France.

My name is Yon Yonson,
I live in Wisconsin.
I work in a lumber yard there.
The people I meet as
I walk down the street,
They say “Hello!”

Stop, Claire tells herself. The guy Yann is right. She is obsessive, or did he write “addicted”? Nearly the same thing.

Claire had stayed in Rajneeshpuram another six months, but it wasn’t the same without Anouk and Philippe. Also, she, too, got sick. Not dysentery but some bronchial infection, on account of the paint fumes, she supposes. She coughed all the time.

She still coughs. “A smoker’s cough,” someone once told her, only she never smoked.

Not true.

She has smoked grass. She still does if the occasion presents itself.

Silence. No more emails from him. At least for now. She breathes a sigh of relief.

What time, she wonders, is it in Sweden now?

She googles: “time in Sweden.”

7:15 p.m.

Maybe he is eating dinner.

She googles: “traditional Swedish dishes.”

Pickled herring, lingonberries, potato pancakes, meatballs, crayfish . . .

She makes a face.

His emails have started up again.

Of course, she could turn off her computer and her phone. She could vacuum her apartment or read a book. Only she doesn’t.

Why? she asks herself.

She is not sure she wants to think about her time with Rajneesh—over thirty years ago. Memories that have grown dim and uncertain. A bit like faded Polaroid photos—all but Anouk, who still remains fairly clear. Her red hair—not dyed, as it turned out. “A crown of fire” is how someone had once described it. But if she looks back and conjures up her own young self, she is unrecognizable.

How old is this Yann? Young, she guesses.

One day I will be famous. As famous as your Rajneesh. More famous. No one here understands that I am the real thing. 14. jan. 2018 kl. 12:17 skrev. Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

Definitely crazy, she thinks. Or on drugs.

Do you remember how Rajneesh said that his body began to smell like jasmine? How he said the smell overpowered him? My body does not smell like jasmine or like a flower. It smells like cabbage and sweat and—but I don’t want to offend you. Please answer me. 14. jan. 2018 kl. 12:20 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

In spite of herself, leaning down, she quickly sniffs at her underarm.

“Even after the Truth has been realized, there remains that strong, obstinate impression that one is still an ego—the agent and experiencer. This has to be carefully removed by living in a state of constant identification with the supreme non-dual Self. Full Awakening is the eventual ceasing of all the mental impressions of being an ego.” 14. jan. 2018 kl. 12:23 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

More from Adi Shankara.

Adi Shankara was an eighth-century Hindu philosopher who preached self-realization.

What does “self-realization” really mean?


Anouk smelled good. She smelled of—she tries to think of what. Tea, maybe. The only time she had slept with a woman. At the time, it had felt like the most natural thing to do in the world; they had made each other come so easily.

Are you there, Claire? What are you thinking about? Are you thinking about fucking Bhagwan? Was it good? 14. jan. 2018. 12:26 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

Claire feels herself blush. Is he a mind reader as well as a lunatic?

One time, out of the blue, Bhagwan had asked her to give him a pedicure. Claire had demurred—she told him she didn’t know how. A test of some kind—he had insisted. A woman there had handed Claire the clippers.

Occasionally, when at night she cannot get to sleep, she counts the men she has slept with. She counts them in order of the worst lovers, then she reverses it and counts them in order of the best.

“Be sure you don’t draw any blood,” the woman warned her.

With Bhagwan’s feet on her lap, she had had to push back the cuticles and cut the tough yellow nails. Afterward, she had to massage the long, bony feet. The whole time she was in tears and could hardly see.

My name is Yon Yonson,
I live in Wisconsin.
I work in a lumber yard there.

Occasionally, when at night she cannot get to sleep, she counts the men she has slept with. She counts them in order of the worst lovers, then she reverses it and counts them in order of the best. The worst was a blind date—she has forgotten his name or more likely has blocked it out—a pilot who took her out in his small single-engine plane. They flew from Lake Tahoe Airport to San Francisco for dinner. On the way back, flying over the Sierra Nevadas, he complained that the radio navigation system he was using “did not know shit”—his words—and was sending him wrong signals. The sky was dark and cloud-covered; there were no visible stars. The snowcapped mountain peaks gleamed menacingly below them. At last they landed at the Lake Tahoe Airport, and afterward, relieved, Claire went to bed with the pilot. The pilot must have been relieved, too. Flying the plane, he had been chewing a stick of gum, and he kept the gum in his mouth while they fucked: chomp, chomp, next to her ear.

You really believe the Bhagwan was enlightened? Well, you are dead wrong. He was a manipulator, a charlatan, a crook, a hypocrite, an anti-Semite—I could go on and on listing his crimes. 14. jan. 2018 kl. 12:30 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

An anti-Semite? Claire shakes her head. The accusation had never occurred to her. The others, perhaps, yes, later in retrospect. He liked telling off-color jokes.

Have I frightened you, Claire? You are right to be frightened. Anything can happen. A meteor can fall from the sky or a huge tsunami can destroy the world. 14. jan. 2018 kl. 12:34 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

She had watched a tsunami video that showed entire houses, cars, boats, livestock, and people—people hanging on to debris and trying to remain afloat—being swept away and under anyway.

The other thing that Claire remembers about the video is how one commentator mentioned a herd of elephants on Sumatra. The elephants, he said, had very sensitive feet and, long before the wave hit the beach, they grew anxious and began to pace.

Rajneesh said silence was deafening and he was being drowned by the sound of a million bees. If that is not a statement by a crazy person I don’t know what is. 14. jan. 2018 kl. 12:41 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

Perhaps she should answer and tell him to stop emailing her.

Better yet, just delete the emails.

Rajneesh was not a crazy person. He was a highly intelligent, ambitious, manipulative person. He claimed not to be enlightened; instead he said he was in “a natural state.” His body functioned in an ideal way.

He wore flamboyant robes—a different one for each day—and had a long white beard and a piercing, hypnotic gaze. The rest of him, including his long, bony feet, Claire has made every effort to forget.

What, she wonders, does Yann look like? Thin and disheveled.

My name is Yon Yonson,
I live in Wisconsin.
I work in a lumber yard there.

All of a sudden, she feels sorry for him.

Not only am I bringing positive energy into the world, I am pure love. Trust me, Claire. 14. jan. 2018 kl. 12:46 skrev Yann Johansen <yjohansen@icloud.com>

Ah love, Claire thinks. That’s what all the gurus say. Bhagwan had once assured her of the same thing. At the time, foolishly, she had believed him.

“Shut the damn computer,” she tells herself.                             .

In bed that night, again sleepless and from habit, Claire reviews her list of lovers—good and bad. She does not include Bhagwan on her list, nor, for that matter, does she include Anouk, although, just as she falls asleep, she remembers how Anouk had once confided to her that she had changed her name from Simone to Anouk, after Anouk Aimée the movie star. Anouk Beloved.


Excerpted from “A Natural State” from Heathcliff Redux: A Novella and Stories © 2020 by Lily Tuck. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

More Story
Literary Disco On Coyote and the Shadow People On today's episode, Julia, Rider, and Tod discuss a classic of Native American storytelling, a story told by generations...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.