smwrites: A woman sits at a typewriter, pages flying, a plug in the back of her awesomely big-curly hair. (Default)
[personal profile] smwrites
"Link me to a Wikipedia entry," I told my circle, "and I'll write a short based on it." Thus the following.
“Maurice R. Hilleman” & “Henrietta Lacks”
Content note: Contains disturbing imagery.
The tigers moved through the village at night with a noise like coughing. Any who looked out between the slatted windows while one of the big cats passed under a lantern hung out—ineffectual—to drive them away would see their bulging eyes with the sclera red, and the resin flowing thick from the glands on their throats. Rifles were ready, leant up against the walls, but people preferred not to shoot them. Disposing of the bodies entailed too much exposure to the illness; mostly it would not kill them, anyway, and then there would be their blood to deal with.

At least, they would say to each other in loud and boastful voices during the day, when the threat did not seem so bad, At least we have killed eight, and they don’t breed. In the gloaming, the comfort in those words ebbed; the twenty-eight remaining could kill as effectively without their fallen pride-mates. At night they whispered that the tigers would kill the village one way or another: with fear and immigration if not illness.

Then came the Hill; it took from them for servants the brave mad men that its heckling could not reduce to tears. It had come soon after the tigers, its voice punctuated with strange magic words but otherwise as rough and awful as a peasant’s. Looking up its flank, one shuddered, seeing in the moss and the rocks the impression of a man. Did you sacrifice yourself? one of his servants asked, overly brave. Were you a human? The Hill’s response—nobody knew the details—drove the man right out of the village.

In other times they would have driven it out for its strangeness, but now any weapon against the tigers was accepted as god-sent, and it was thus. The first two, they shot before they knew better, and the Hill had not yet come among them. They buried the first corpse, and sixty villagers died of the sick that leached into the soil, their bodies burning, their skin erupting into ulcers. The second they burned. Some survived, but they never were right, broken with the memory of the pain and always shivering with the hurt of their delicate open eye sockets.

When the Hill came, they showed it to the sites of the ill-done graves. It moved with in its groaning, crackling way, a constant falling forward of its lumpish body, and spent a month hunched over the place of the tiger’s remains. On the thirtieth day, the Hill flowered; another month, and it fruited. Those who ate of it—grimacing, because the fruits muttered to themselves even when detached—sometimes grew feverish or ached, but never grew sick again of those tigers’ illnesses.

One more they killed in the village, and the Hill rolled over it; but its blood must have sapped down, for many died before the others could eat of the fruit that came of it. After that, they hunted the others in the wood, finding them in their day-dens, bludgeoning them in hopes that they could thus avoid infection. The Hill rasped profanities all the while, and it consumed the corpses, and it grew. At night it followed the cats, consuming the trail of resin that dripped from them

Only twenty-eight more, it promised. I’m working on it. Have some fucking faith
A certain tigress would rest in the center square of the village, legs folded neatly against her chest, paws washed over in her effluvia. When she the dawn drew near and she walked back towards the forest, she left perfect black prints, and teats distended from many pregnancies swung from her underside. This confused and upset the villagers; they’d not seen cubs, and the number of their enemies had never increased, nor shown evidence of differences in age between the individuals. When they appealed to the Hill for an explanation, he mumbled some of the words that were meaningless to them, and they were comforted.

The number of her pride-mates had dropped from twenty-seven to twenty-two when she dropped a litter of five there in the lamplight. She licked the squeaking kittens clean with a tongue that left behind a white and stiffening drool.

One of the Hill’s men, stationed on a roof with a rifle, took a shot at them; one ruptured, and in time that did not seem long enough for the wind to carry it an awful odor spread over the whole of the village, so even those who did not witness the birth woke, and with sighs resigned themselves to new horror. The man who dared kill the little one, touched by the smell, grew disoriented—pressed a hand against his mouth to hold back vomit—fell, and in falling broke his neck. The tigress went unmolested as she carried them one by one into the forest, though those left in a weakly writhing pile seemed so vulnerable.

If the cubs survived, they did not know; she returned the town’s center without her cubs the next night and kept her usual vigil. Sour milk dripped from her swollen teats, and her haunches were streaked with blood. The moaning of her pain kept the village awake; they grew short-tempered; they demanded action of the Hill. Quiet, an old man said to it, “I will bludgeon her to death so that the infection does not spread too far. I don’t care if I die. I haven’t slept these past days—” He shuddered. “—and I will never sleep again.”

That night he battled with her. His grown children sat on one of the roofs, red-eyed but not crying: his sacrifice was too great for even filial grief. Her constancy and passivity made them predict an easy death, but it was not so; she arose roaring and would not let the man draw close enough to land a clubbing blow to her head, so that he was forced first to batter at her legs, her sides. In the end, he flung himself into the tigress’ clawed embrace for the chance to strike her on the temple. Thus did they both die.

The Hill took them both under its mass; for weeks it spoke nothing but a stream of cusses, and at night it ignored the tigers which came and circled it, issuing low hisses and growls. Whatever she had been, they mourned the tigress.

At last the Hill silenced, and moving away left behind the old man’s skeleton for his children to bury with a gold-leafed tombstone in commemoration. Their savior was distracted, its usual cleansing of the tar from the village sloppy, and even its loyal men began to mutter discontent. It was not quite forgiveness they gave the Hill the day a tiger cub tore out from its side, but they understood. Falling on the monster, it broke its spine and consumed it, but it was the first of many; protruding from its greenery there would be a cat’s mouth making sucking motions, or else a deformed paw pumping the air, flashing sickle claws. A few escaped it, for it shuddered with horrible pain when they escaped him, and for all they wriggled blindly like the newborn beasts they were, the little ones moved fast.

“I need to get away from here,” it told them one day, and inside of it they heard the purring of many voices. “Damn. I’m sorry. I’ll send someone else. But these fuckers need to be taken down to their parts so they can’t develop all the way—they’ll be useful then.”

How?” the villagers cried in disbelief. And it spoke its magic words, and they subsided.

Too much shock and fear attended its departure for any ceremony or even thanks for those it had killed; it was clever and had gone for the most dangerous first, and the illnesses of those remaining might be survived—though for those too deeply imbedded in the opinions of their neighbors would kill themselves in despair of the maiming.

Months passed; the night came when five adolescents, their legs long and clumsy and their sides lean, came: and they bared their fangs at the villagers who looked through the windows, their tails lashing as a housecat’s did at birds. Unlike the adults, they would take livestock left vulnerable. The villagers took to prayer; they waited for the tigress’ children by the Hill to be visited upon them.

I’m a vexillologist, I tell new acquaintances, and smile sweetly. In the next breath, before they can ask: You do know what that is, don’t you?

The proud ones—and they are all proud, these days—smile and nod and escape the topic quickly, before they are called on to display their knowledge. It seems to them that Mednet should package info on all the –ologies, the sciences, with how important they are in the world, but maybe it’s one price bracket higher than they can afford. The government subsidizes the knowledge factories but it still isn’t cheap. I find it difficult not to pity them, when I can read those rote thoughts in their eyes. Mine is a small trick, and one none of them are trained to see. I am here for the sake of learning what is useless when all others buy what is needed, and it has made me strange.

I am at one of Mylah’s parties where it’s all accountants and lawyers when a young man—one entirely too young to be flirting with me, though I can’t understand why else our conversation has gone on so long—asks, “What do you do?”

He is tall and blond and handsome; I’ve been doing it longer than you’ve been alive, I think, but give him my standard response.

His smile widens. “No, I don’t know.”

It trips me up. I, who flatter myself with the thought that working outside Mednet grants me spontaneity that the hoi polloi would dream of if they ever slept. “Well—I work with the Institute for Preservation of Mental Arts.” I wait for the nervousness; some can build their self-worth on their success in their profession, their families, their hobbies, but others hackle at the hint of academia and genius. It’s guilt, I think, for leaving behind the pursuit of education, which even now carries prestige. The ivory tower is now the microprocessor tower, one of Mednet’s old COOs said. Who needs institutionalized learning when you can download more info than four years of college could ever teach you?

“Oh,” the young man breathes. “I always wanted to, but I went in and bought business instead. My parents—you know.” He smile goes apologetic, his voice lower, to say: “Sometimes I think of it. I buy old textbooks to learn theories by rote. Then I have to download them, because they never stick well the old way. But first, first I try to learn. Is it very strange for you, to be around other people who didn’t learn anything?”

“I download info, too,” I say, still caught up in surprise. “I never would have been able to make a casserole without Mednet. It’s not like I’m different from everyone else.”

He tilts his head, all mild and gentle and questioning.

“Sometimes,” I admit, “I think it’s a loss. Other times, I’m sure it means that we are still okay as a species because the Institute exists, and humans value knowledge in the name of knowledge—knowing that comes from struggle, that ends in triumph, that fades. It does fade, you know. When I first got into it, I couldn’t believe that I would have a fact one day and lose it by the next.”

“Oh,” he says again. “It’s not only me that can’t keep a grip on learning?”

“It’s all of us. It’s different, when it’s not from Mednet. You have to practice. It’s really strange, still, when I think about it. Sometimes frustrating. But that’s part of the old way.” I hesitate. “I never answered your question. Vexillology—it’s the study of flags. The science, even. Their history, their symbolism, all that.” I dig in my pocket for my ‘business’ card, which marks me as outside the social boundaries of the pragmatic, moneyed world. I hand it to him; the stamp of the sheet bend knot in goldenrod on blue and all the fuzzy knowing of its history is comforting. “You should stop by my office some time. I’ll teach you about making flash cards.”

He looks shy and deeply pleased, tucking the card into his pocket. Then we have to part, though, me and the young man who might have been one of the Institute’s preservation learners, if he’d walked away from Mednet for a few days in his youth. We must have our sound bite conversations, one with each guest, to make this a successful party. It would be a shame to upset Mylah, so we’ll play that game. Then I will go home and write my article on the flags of Africa before the reorganization of the nation-states, and I will think, and learn, and dwell on what humanity keeps me for: knowledge.

We fear becoming the mechanical dystopias of our youth. I don’t know that we aren’t; but then, I am not hunted, threatened, killed, but have been made by this society, which allows me to spend nights awake, unsure, while it rests certain that the burden of learned knowledge is in the hands of professionals.
Delhanty came every third day of the week with a basket of foodstuff and a single rose, sometimes with its stem pinned between an orange and a wedge of cheese so that it stood upright, or laid across the top of a new loaf of bread—once, clenched between her teeth, and her nose wrinkled with laughter above it. Once I asked her why, but she wouldn’t tell, pressing a finger to her pursed lips in a charming kindergarten shhh. The thorns were always cut off; sometimes after I would hold the flower in my hand, bloom in one palm and stem across the other, until night came and I clenched my fists around it. Afterwards I threw away the sap-weeping remnants, but let the pollen and the stickiness stay on my skin.

The day she doesn’t come, I stand at the open window with my body leaned into the outside air, peering the five stories down to the street. I decide I will not glorify her going with my death, and retreat.

What does one do, with the source of very good cheese and passable vegetables gives up on you? I shrug on a coat and shuffle in my slippers down to the street level, puffing a little from all the stairs. While it is sometimes difficult to judge if a space falls within the acceptable margin between too confined and too open, the elevator is obviously out of question. The streets are almost easy, with the buildings boxing the sky and the people shying away from me; the bodega around the corner is crowded with goods but comforting with the smell of coffee and its manager’s pipe smoke, so I can get what I need without being pulled back from reality.

Back in the apartment, I make toast and spread honey on it with an unnecessary furtiveness. My mother isn’t here to judge.

A new caregiver shows the next day with many an apologetic word about the company’s failure to fill in for Delhanty’s deliveries. “Iatros,” he says, “Is there anything you need? She wasn’t bringing you much. I want to make sure you understand what you’re entitled to.” The censure in his voice is obvious. He has brought me a loaf of white bread from one of the corporate groceries, the ingredients listed as Wheat flour, water, wheat gluten, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, yeast. Disgusting. I won’t eat it, but for him I smile and say things are all right, not wanting to appear needy. It’s amazing how much the caregivers want their customers to be stoical, like good cripples.

The day Delhanty knocks on my door, I almost close it on her face—except there’s the familiar rose in her hand, which she proffers, expression all sweet smiles and apology.

“Where have you been?” I ask, letting her in.

“I got sacked.” She shrugs, philosophical. At my raised eyebrows, she elaborates, “They said I might as well be the one getting delivered to, not the deliverer. Had a bit of an incident on the road, you know?”

I didn’t, until now—nor the greater thing this said about her and her mind. “I’m sorry.”

She waves it away with the hand holding the rose, putting its heady scent in the air like a wild perfume and shedding petals onto my linoleum. “No, I’m sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t be here?”

“Yes, no. I mean—it’s fine. I have iced tea.”

She looks amused. “I’d love some. It was a long walk.” It’s with a bit of a grimace that she adds, “I don’t have my own car, and the company certainly isn’t inclined towards letting me borrow theirs.”

I laugh, surprised. “Well, obviously not. Did you ask them to?”

“Obviously, yes. You should know that I’m a bold bugger by now. I mean, how long have you known me?”

Years, I realize, putting ice in a glass. “Why the roses?”

She twirls it between her fingers, looking down at the flower; she doesn’t see the iced tea I hold out to her. She says, “I always wanted someone to give flowers to. You remind me of someone who liked the gesture, too, if I must be honest, and I’m told it helps to confront bad memories.”

“Here.” She startles, takes the glass. I hesitate, thinking of the pill bottles that I don’t have and the ones—I suspect—she does. People who go to therapy are like that, sometimes, grasping after whatever can save them from their own heads. “What happened?”

“A terrible nightmare—” Her expression is wry, and I finally accept the rose, cradling it in loose-wrapped fingers. “—damaged my psychological integrity. You wouldn’t believe.”

“I might well not.” I shift. “I can’t remember, even during the flashbacks, or the hallucinations.”

Delhanty buys time with a sip of the drink, not mentioning how bitter it is brewed. “I’m sorry, Iatros. It’s unprofessional for me to be here. It just seemed the right thing to talk, and to give you a last rose.”

“You’re not a professional anymore,” I point out. “Come sit down.”

On the couch, I put the rose on the other cushion, so she has to sit on the chair. It’s the politest way I can think to indicate I don’t want to brush shoulders.

It seems to me this encounter is as at odds with significance as all the rest of my life locked in this apartment, hurting. Pointlessness, even when it becomes a way of life, is still striking. “Why are we here?”

Elbows on knees, she cocks her head to the side. “You missed me, didn’t you?” She spreads her hands. “You can’t question that, can you?”
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