Sadie said snake when the doctor pointed to the flip-chart cobra. She said apple for apple, earth for earth. The doctor touched the sac growing out the front of her and said, “She’s all brain and uterus.”
Sadie said, “What’s uterus?”
I had to remind him she was five. I said, “She’s five, doc.”
“Come into the anteroom,” the doctor said.
He lobbed three dolls her way. We left her floating in the sick room. She floated in and out among the dolls, touching their baby faces with her baby fingers. The doctor pushed the button and closed the one-way mirror between us and we watched her. She looked pale and sickly, like her mother. I had a vision of a pink flamingo. The doctor said, “It’s only right you tell her.”
I had to remind him she was five again. I said, “She’s five, doc.”
“It’s this or nothing,” he said, as casual about killing as uteruses.
I said, “Bedside manner, doc.”
When you strap on the sticky boots and the backpack sled, it’s not ethics you worry. The earth glowed green beneath us, a reminder against anything holy. You don’t worry some other father’s worries. You think about them, maybe. You think about the randomness of things, but everything is random, isn’t everything?
What if someone had run faster than your grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather, and beat him to the exit rocket of your ancestry? Ditto your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother? What if one of the late missiles had hit your city instead of somebody else’s city? What if one of the early ones had?
What if somebody had pushed a launch button back in the days of mutually assured destruction? What if somebody scratched their face different and drew a different draft number, and somebody got creamed in Vietnam? What if some stowaway got thrown into the ocean on his way from debtor’s prison to Georgia? What if the Spanish won the Battle of the Spanish Armada? What if Rome had turned away the Vandals? What if some Neanderthal tribe got a lucky break in the pivotal skirmish versus homo sapiens sapiens?
When you strap on the sticky boots and the backpack sled, it’s not ethics you worry. It’s want you worry. Your agriculture pod goes down and it’s off to raid the good ship Henri Wang, where carrots and cabbage are treated like weeds to be choked and rooted among the better things they grow fat upon on the Henri Wang. Your daughter needs a uterus, and it’s not a future without right sex or childbearing that troubles you. It’s good God we live in orbit and radiation streams over us same as the air from the O 2/CO 2 exchange unit, and no matter what the think-positive people say, we weren’t made to live like this. You give over one body part and another follows. You won’t watch a daughter rot. You clear your mind and you strap on the sticky boots and the backpack sled.
“A good raiding party,” Kansas says, a joke. There are three of us. Kidnap’s our m.o. Our sights are set on the Golden Filigree, which lost its radar before we were born. A hundred-ninety on board at last count, but we are skilled at the art of the in and out, and we know where the nursery is. Pod 39, starboard, when the big red GF faces away from the earth.
“Lock up your daughters,” Tao says, a worse joke.
They go on this way, what else can we steal?, a Russian bride?, she’d be an old rotting corpse, wouldn’t she?, and look!, there’s seventeen million kilometers of Russian corpse brides beneath us!, how’s your skydiving these days?, what’s your reentry rating?, do you like it hot?
They’re not bad guys. They strap the two halves of gurney sled to their shoulders. They say I’m too shaky. They say I’m too weak. What they mean is it’s my daughter, it’s me that’s got to do the snatch and grab in case we get caught, so it’s just us get thrown out without pressurized suits, and the retribution stops there. In memory, I’m there with them forever, crawling out the hatch, battening, the barren moon bright above us.
The trick was saving fuel. We hung out in the black by our sticky boots, rotating out with the wagon wheel. We could’ve fired off, but like the saying goes: fuck the fire; dovetail and drift.
So we did. We unstickied toewise, and the Ill Nature sped off away. We dovetailed and drifted. Our triangle was practiced. Kansas spit a small fire to set us spinning. Tao reciprocated to set us still. I lifted my leg to press at my pockets, my wrench and my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather’s forty-five. Kansas said, “What do you get when you cross a human being with a tactical nuke?” Tao said, “Did you know eventually the earth will crash into the sun?”
We waited. Then we waited. Then we waited and waited. Have you ever waited for the rough intersection of an equatorial orbit and a polar orbit, even when your plan was computer-aided? Have you ever dovetailed and drifted with low jokers like Tao and Kansas?
Here is what was on my mind while we waited:
Sex and babies.
If there are two words that don’t belong together, it’s sex and babies. But they always go together. How are babies made? You have to have sex to have babies. First thing somebody asks when you have a baby is, “What’s the sex?” Baby grows up, comes of age, and first thing somebody says is, “Listen, I know you want to have sex, but you’re better off not having sex, because if you have sex, you’re likely as not to have a baby.”
Sadie said, “What’s uterus?”
I said, “That’s where babies grow.”
Sadie said, “I want to have some babies.”
The doctor said, “We’re gonna try to fix it so you can.”
Sadie touched her stomach and said, “Is there a baby in there right now?”
The doctor said, “I’ll let you field this one, Dad.”
I said, “There’s a sickness there right now.”
Sadie said, “How does a baby get in there?”
The doctor said, “I’ll give you two a minute.”
I said, “I’m thinking.”
But all I could think was brittle bones. Same doctor, same sickroom, Sadie’s mother instead of Sadie. “Brittle bones,” the doctor said.
“What’s brittle bones mean?” Sadie’s mother said, touching her belly where Sadie was growing in it.
“Bad news for childbirth,” the doctor said. “Common as sin. You won’t survive it.”
“What can we do about it?” I said.
“I’m having this baby,” Sadie’s mother said.
The choices we make.
The Golden Filigree drifted into view. No matter how many raids to which you’ve been party, there is no adjusting to the speed with which these happenings happen versus the slowness with which these happenings seem to be happening as they happen.
Let’s be frank. It hurts to hit. Gravity is relative. The boost from the backpack sled doesn’t help. The sticky boots don’t help. It’s your neck and spine that feel it worst, then your head. You need your head for thinking, because what happens next happens fast. There’s the sound of impact, and somebody inside pushes a button or pulls a lever. There is the question of time. You don’t have much. And there is the question of numbers. Three versus the Golden Filigree.
We touched down not too far from the central entry pod, the closest entry pod to Pod 39. Our sticky boots clanked and clattered, no doubt. It seemed unlikely the rickety Golden Filigree boasted much in the way of noise reduction technology. Tao pried open the hatch, and then Kansas went to work on the interior door before Tao even got the exterior door shut. Tao said, “Wait for pressurize.” Kansas said why the hell wait? Their voices roared in my helmet. I said focus and Kansas said, “Pressure.”
Four men waited on the other side. More were on their way. There was shouting. Everyone had stun sticks. Our suits were bulky, yes, and it was difficult, yes, to walk in our suits, but our suits were impervious to stun sticks. The Filigrees swung their stun sticks, and Kansas and Tao brained them with their wrenches.
There are many uses for a wrench. Surely you have seen what a wrench can do to a screw or a bolt, but have you seen what a wrench can do to a head? Have you heard the sound a wrench can make upon a skull?
It was easy that way, Tao and Kansas leading with their wrenches, Tao saying, “A stun stick walks into a vacuum,” Kansas swinging, saying, “Fuckers,” a spray of crimson and a clot of thick gray matter clouding our facemasks so we had to keep wiping them clear as we pushed past Pod 43, Pod 42, Pod 41, Pod 40.
They had barricaded the nursery, and the wrench did its job there, too. Seventeen blows blunted upon the fancy triple block lock, and Kansas had us in, the monsters we were. Because children were crying. Dozens of children. Children missing limbs, children with extra fingers, bald children, blind children, Mongoloids. All these damaged children in the care of two skinny teenage girls who offered them up without a fight and hid under two cribs.
“Which one?” Kansas said.
“My God,” Tao said. A child with two stumps for hands wrapped his arms around his leg and hugged. I imagine his slight weight felt considerable.
“Hurry up and decide,” Kansas said.
It was not easy. Which were the boys and which were the girls? Did the outward birth defects mean the inner organs had developed in some relative sanctuary? Did I want to pluck a womb from any of these damaged babies and stick it in my own baby?
There was a commotion from the hall behind us. Tao stationed himself and his wrench at the door and soon was swinging.
“We don’t have the luxury,” Kansas said.
I scanned them, a blind one, a lame one. I touched them, but why? I could feel nothing through the glove. Was there a test for deafness?
“There,” Kansas said. “Under there.” He pointed under the crib. A little hand poked out, and the skinny babysitter was trying to pull it back in.
The logic was transparent. She was sheltering the prime meat. Or maybe sheltering her own child. “You there,” I said to the girl. “Do you want to die?”
She said she did not.
“Are you hiding a boy or a girl under your skirt?” I said.
Kansas raised his wrench near her head.
“Take her,” the keeper said. She pulled the little thing from behind her and pushed her out from under the crib.
Kansas picked her up by one arm and brought her over kicking.
“Gentle,” I said.
“Decide,” Kansas said.
Hell if she wasn’t beautiful. Skinny but whole. Sobbing and kicking, even, she put me in mind of a pink flamingo. I threw up in my mouth, but I spoke up full-voiced. “Let’s pack her,” I said.
Goddamn, did I harden myself. I pulled the half gurney sled from Kansas’s shoulders, and the other half from Tao’s shoulders as he swung his wrench. I stuffed the sobbing kicking girl into the gurney. I pressurized the gurney and grabbed it, and we fought our way out of the nursery, past the pods, out the hatch, and toward the Ill Nature.
Somewhere in the dead space where one orbit awaited another, Kansas cursed, and Tao calmed him down. Tao said, “Can she hear us in there?” and Kansas said yes, the microphones, the radio. Tao started singing a nursery song. “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” Kansas said it was a morbid song and why can’t we hear the girl crying. I told them I turned off her microphone. Tao sang, “Take the key and lock her up, lock her up, lock her up.”
“Enough,” I said.
There was the question of where to hold her and keep her alive. I nixed the nursery. Kansas said the cages where we kept the monkeys and the chickens, and the elders said this wasn’t an animal we’d brought into our home, although maybe we were animals for bringing her. Tao said there was no law against it. The doctor counseled wisdom, but he didn’t specify. There was some quiet for awhile, and one of the elders said if it was his daughter, he would do the same thing, but it was wrong anyway, and did I know it?, could I sleep at night?, what kind of ship were we running? Kansas volunteered, “The Ill Nature.” Nobody laughed. Somebody said maybe we should give the little girl something to eat. Tao volunteered to feed her. I left the government pod so I could visit my daughter.
Sadie was sicker than when I had left. “I’ve been thinking,” she said.
“About Cassius Clay?” I said. We had a comprehensive library of the fighting arts, and she was partial to twentieth century boxing.
“About sharks,” she said. It was said they were a survivable creature. Probably millions of them swam the green oceans by now. All kindergarteners knew this. I no longer believed it to be true. There was nothing down there. Nothing.
“What about sharks?” I said.
“If they are the perfect predators, and they eat everything in the sea, what will they have left to eat once they eat everything in the sea?”
“Honey,” I said, “let’s talk about Cassius Clay.”
“Are you gonna do her with a wrench?” Tao said.
“Of course not,” I said.
“Are you gonna do her with a sizzle stick?” Kansas said.
“Let me eat,” I said.
“The doctor’s not gonna do her,” Tao said.
“I know it,” I said.
“Everybody knows it,” Tao said.
“Let me eat,” I said.
It was carrots and cabbage we were eating. Weeds on the Henri Wang. We were to the Wangs as the Filigrees were to the Ill Natures.
“You could do her with the gun,” Tao said.
Nobody had ever fired the gun since the exit rockets lifted. There was a saying: guns made holes, and holes made graves.
“If we reinforced with steel and steel,” Tao said. He grinned and took a drawing from his pocket. “Sick fucks, we are,” he said.
Kansas leaned over the table toward me more somberly. “But fast,” he said. “Nobody wants to see that little girl suffer.”
Weren’t we a fine bunch of executioners. We dressed in purple smocks stolen from the kindergarten art class. We hauled out the fine borer and the solid catch and the liquid catch. We didn’t want anybody breathing our sweat or metal. We didn’t want to stain any good clothes. We reinforced metal with metal. We crafted with care. Our insulating materials were well-chosen. Tao and Kansas whistled when we took breaks. They had this whistling game they called ping pong. They batted a light song back and forth across the room until one of them batted it too far. Tao said things like old chap and jolly good. Kansas said things like nitrocellulose powders and thirty-nine thousand copper units of pressure. What we were making started to look like Sadie’s examining table. The doctor came to visit and proclaimed our work good.
The things that go through your mind at a moment like this:
Sadie will never eat a fish.
Sadie will never ride a bullet train across two continents.
The extinction of the pink flamingo.
Sadie will never know her mother.
Tao’s hand was on my shoulder. The gun was in his hand. He ran his finger across the top of its slide. “Compensator slits,” he said, “to reduce recoil.” He talked barrel length, line of sight, weight loaded and unloaded. “Magazine capacity thirteen standard,” he said. “But I think all you’re gonna need is one.”
He put one of Sadie’s baby dolls on the metal table and strapped it down. He point blanked the barrel. He softly said boom. He threw himself backward to simulate the kick. Kansas said, “That’s gonna be the problem, I think.” They made a couple of trips to the requisition pod and came back with mattresses, pillows, thick blankets, duct tape. Tao and him did some math, made me a trajectory.
“So we’ll put you here,” Tao said. “Me and Kansas will spot you here and here. The kickback will get you here.” He handed around the Kevlar vests. Kansas got nervous. “Pre-projectile preparation prevents people piercing,” Tao said. He took the extra vests, and dressed the table, dressed the floor and ceiling, dressed the walls. He said he was worried about bounce-around. The trick, he said, was slowing everything down.
The doctor came in. His major worry, he said, was a sterile environment. His other major worry was time. “We’re gonna need some dry ice,” he said. “We’re gonna need to bring some women in here. A body crew.” His list got longer. Tao took notes. Kansas left to get things. I made a schedule. It occurred to me that somewhere among the animal pens, the girl from the Golden Filigree needed, and nobody was doing anything. I mentioned it to Tao. He said, “Don’t do anything.” I started to do more mentioning, and Tao said, “Don’t speak about it, don’t think about it, don’t even begin to exercise your lips or your empathy. We got a higher math in play here. We got Greek letters and funny superscript. We got X plus Y equals Z. You want to be a good dad, you be a goddamn machine, you work the checklist, you take your marching orders from the checklist, you let the checklist do your thinking for you. You turn off your brain. You dropkick your brain. You tell your brain: Don’t do anything.”
All those books, all those songs, all those videos where they talk about the heart? What they’re talking about is the brain. The brain is deceitful above all things. Home is where the brain is. Love the brain that hurts you, but never hurt the brain that loves you. The brain was made to be broken. The brain is a lonely hunter.
I went down where they said she was kept, in the animal pens. For all their pious talk, not one of the elders had offered to take her home and care for her. She was floating alone, dazed and blank as a sheep, in a pen meant for sheep. Her hair was matted, and she was twirling one end of it with a finger. There was some water in a cooler in the corner. They had put some diced carrots in a machine made to dispense feed.
I went into the pen. I held her. She let me hold her. Her body was very tense. I said, “What’s your name?” I took some water in my hand and tried and failed to fix her hair. She was wearing somebody’s big ugly shoes. These shoes were two sizes too big. They were orange shoes. I said, “Do you want my shoes?” She just kept staring out ahead of her but there was nothing to see except the wall of the sheep pen. I took off her shoes. Then I took off my shoes and tried to put them on her feet. She pulled her feet away, like she didn’t want them. Why would I have thought she’d want my shoes? My shoes were bigger than the shoes they had given her. Those shoes were ugly, but my shoes were ugly, too. I kept thinking if I thought about ugly shoes, I wouldn’t have to think about this pretty little girl. But it wasn’t any use trying not to think about what I was already thinking. Even with the matted hair, even with the ugly shoes, this was a pretty little girl. I didn’t want to think there was any little girl more pretty than Sadie, but I was looking at these two pair of ugly shoes, and my bare feet, and her bare feet, and what I started thinking was: This little girl might be more pretty than Sadie. The brain was made to be broken. The brain is a lonely hunter.
I carried her to the execution chamber. Her arms were wrapped around my neck. She smelled of sheep and sweat. Her cheek touched my cheek. She seemed very small. Tao crossed his arms over his chest. Kansas crossed his arms over his chest. I started to say, and Tao said hush. Then I started to say again, and Kansas said shh. A third time I started to say, and the doctor came in, shaking his head. “The rules are the rules,” he said.
Can we keep her? Or: Maybe we could keep her. I started to say a fourth time, and Tao took her from my arms and strapped her to the table. Kansas pinned me to the wall. She started to cry, and Kansas said, “Who would keep her? You? She would be your second daughter? She’d grow up and you’d tell her you kept her after you cut out her ya-ya and gave it to her sister? You’d say you stole her from the Filigrees and kept her in a sheep pen?”
The crying stopped suddenly and I saw that Tao had stuck a sock in her mouth hole. She was looking at me. “Maybe so,” I said. “Maybe so.”
“No,” Kansas said. “If she is alive they will come for her, and what would they have to lose? We will send a letter. We will send an apology. We will send a care package with carrots and cabbage. Bushels, we’ll send. Roots, too, and soil. They’ll think it’s a good trade. Sadie will have babies. Everyone will be happy.”
“No,” I said. I steeled myself.
Tao took two steps toward me and punched me in the face. Then he took the gun, put the barrel on the sock in her mouth, tilted it toward her brain, and pulled the trigger.
It was true about the kick. He flew up where me and Kansas were floating, and we made a heap at the mattress on the ceiling. The Kevlar crumpled the bullet. The machines scrubbed the area of blood and bits of bullet.The doctor cut a lower midline incision with a No. 10 scalpel. He dissected with Bovie cautery. The midline between the rictus muscles he appreciated, and the fascia he incised. He talked us through all the medicine, though we couldn’t rightly follow. He said, “Pfannenstiel.” He said, “Couldn’t you fools have waited until after the excision?” He said, “Skin flaps.” He said the peritoneum was appreciated, and he said never with hemostats. He said Ochsner clamp, absorbable suture, and ovarian vessels. He spoke of spay and neuter. “This puppy I knew once,” he said, “name of Chauncey.” He said there was no point reapproximating the vagina. He seemed sad when he said it.
We chilled the tiny uterus. The shape of it put me in mind of a pear. We lidded the dry icebox. The ladies came to take the body. The idea was to set it out the front door with the trash. I said, “Are you gonna wrap it in something?” The ladies did not answer. Tao and Kansas were very quiet as well. The doctor picked up the icebox. The doctor said I wasn’t welcome to follow. He said something to Tao about liver stones.
Liver stones is what he said, but all I could hear was brittle bones. A little piece of that little girl’s hair floated onto my Kevlar vest, near my collarbone. Everyone was leaving the room. Nobody told me where I should go. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Part of me wanted to brush that little hair from my Kevlar vest, and part of me wanted to put it in my mouth.
I put the little hair in my pocket.
“Brittle bones,” the doctor had said.
“I’m having this baby,” Sadie’s mother had said, and then she died.
I touched the little hair in my pocket. The pear. Liver stones. The icebox.
Brittle bones brittle bones brittle bones brittle bones brittlebones brittlebones
brittlebonesbrittlebonesbrittlebonesbrittlebones . . .
What happened in that room came out later under the barrel of the gun. The doctor dispensed with the i.v. He administered the general anesthetic through a breathing mask. Sevoflurane is what he chose. A simuprex breathing mask is what he chose. Sadie was breathing through it. The doctor got to choose was Sadie breathed. He chose Sevoflurane.
Sevoflurane forms at least two degradation products, Compound A and Compound B, on contact with the dessicated soda lime in the rebreathing apparatus. The doctor didn’t run enough gas, and Compound A built up its toxins. Renal necrosis, the doctor said, but what he meant was he blew up Sadie’s kidneys before he even had a chance to cut near them.
I saw her there, on the table. They brought me in to say goodbye. I didn’t say it to anything like ears. There was no Sadie on the table so I could say goodbye. Sadie was gone. Her body lay strapped like the other girl’s body was strapped. The sac still lay inert out the front of her. The little uterus lay in the icebox beside the table. The simuprex breathing mask covered her mouth, a kidney killer, a death mask.
The tribes of homo sapiens sapiens killed the tribes of the Neanderthals because there was only so much land and food to go around, and somebody had to get it. I believe the twentieth century philosopher who said: “Animals are no more than machines—milk machines, piglet-making machines, egg-laying machines.” The men who built the exit rockets were once condemned as crazies. They were also animals, simian, smart enough to create creeds to justify their cravings, smart enough to carry Sevoflurane.
None of that was working out so well for me. I figured if I had a creed, it would be fittingly animal. Somebody killed my young, I’d lash out in pain. Or fittingly human, a scorched earth campaign. So I killed Tao. I killed the doctor. I killed Kansas. One way or another I killed Sadie, I killed Sadie’s mother, I killed all those Filigrees. I did it with the gun, I did it with the gun, I did it with the gun, I did it with Tao’s trigger finger, I did it with the doctor and his death mask, I did it with my dingaling.
Once long ago, before Sadie was even a dream, her mother went into the fabrication pod and fashioned me a pink flamingo from pink fiberglass. She had seen one in a book. She said it was very beautiful. Her arms and hands were itching up and down from the fiberglass. She said there was a kind of burning in her skin. She was smiling when she said it. She said she would rip her skin off if it helped her make something beautiful for me. We made love and we made love and one day we made Sadie. We made her a name and her name was Sadie.
I thought of naming the sheep pen after the little girl from the Filigree, but I never knew her name.
Kyle Minor reports that, as the twentieth century proceeded out of woeful misreadings of Darwin, Jesus, Marx, and Mohammed, the twenty-sixth owes much to misunderstandings of recently recovered fragments from the writings of Joy Williams, Idi Amin, J.M. Coetzee, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Minor's ancestor, an obscure twenty-first century scribe also named Kyle Minor, was the author of In the Devil's Territory, and his stories appeared in such forgotten venues as The Southern Review, Surreal South, and Best American Mystery Stories 2008. Little else is known about him, and it is astonishing that history remembers this much.
COPYRIGHT 2009 KYLE MINOR
ART FOR PLOTS WITH RAY GUNS BY KEMIKORE MEDIAWORKS, USED WITH PERMISSION
TITLE & AUTHOR DESIGN BY THOMAS FLYNN