By T.C. Hansen
“I learned in war, hospitals are to practice being dead,” Father runs his finger over an old scar. It is stretched and distended now, because of how he has gained and lost so much weight so many times since then, like a squirrel or a bird or a bear eating and starving with the seasons. “To practice being outside yourself. You can see little plastic bellows pumping their lungs; you can see their heartbeat and brainwaves, splattered up on screens. Anyone can just see all of this. Their waste too, just sitting in pans. When the tubes in their arms back up, you see their blood. Everything’s outside of ’em except their soul. The soul’s just lookin’ out through the eyes, and the blood and heart and brain are saying ‘hey, come on out with us. It’s nice out here.’ Everything’s just getting spread out; jumping ship.”
He leaves then, and it does not feel good. It feels like the happiness that is fusing my bones together in this box. I do not remember ever being out of the box, though I must have been at some time. (How terrifying!)
Father rarely comes to speak at me, and I do not think he has ever heard my voice. Only my screams when I am so happy that I cannot keep it in. I am a very good screamer; sometimes Father cries for the beauty of it and lets me drink from the bottle that Mother uses to clean my infections and sores. It tastes like poisoned glass, but it is good for Father’s insides and my outsides.
Mother is praying now, and I can hear her through the wall, which is thin like a moth’s wing or a piece of peeled skin. “Dear God, almighty and powerful,” she starts her prayer in the usual way, “Nothing is impossible for you, for it was you that created the Earth, and it was you who formed the sea.”
I almost had my arm sawed off because of an infection one year ago, but Mother saved it with the rags and pills she made me swallow by pinching my nose.
“It was you that enforced the peace accord of the Enjoined nations, and it was you who set the jewelling stars in the heavens.”
Because I am in this box like a turtle is in his shell, my body cannot grow when it tries to, so my bones and muscles and fibers are always pushing and shoving one another until they make me scream so loud the window rattles a little bit. I cannot move a single finger. Not a single one.
I hate to boast.
“It is you that guides the seasons and it is you who provided low-interest mortgages for families with one or more child volunteered for The Enjoined Construction Service.”
All this jittering energy is happiness, my parents tell me, trying to explode outward. I now understand why Father is such a greatly unhappy man. I admire him for finding so many ways to be unhappy, and I hope to be as unhappy as him some day.
“In all your omnipotence and your Economic Acumen, please keep our son Cren’s box intact, for we cannot build him a new one. If this box breaks, his body will grow like a normal boy, and he will not become a deformed person. And who wants to see a normal boy perform on a great stage? So, in your highest wisdom and well-above-average intelligence, allow our Cren to become deformed, that he may be an entertainer, and never want for food.”
Because my bones are pushing against themselves to grow, but have no space for it, one bone in my arm split into two directions so it had more space to grow into. One part grew out through my skin and it became infected, but my mother made it so I did not lose my arm to a Green Gang. I do not know this gang, but they were going to saw off my arm, like another gang burned one of Father’s hands in acid when he did not pay his Tithe.
“You will know God one day.” Mother walks in the door and sits cross-legged before my box. “When we sell you to the city people and they make you a famous entertainer. They do love deformed people in the city. How they laugh.”
I wonder if being loved would make me unhappy. I do not think Mother loves Father, and he is very unhappy.
“You will always have food,” she says, “and you will be civilized. You will know God. Perhaps you’ll perform for him one day. All the best performers go to his Keep and perform for him. I heard he has floors of smooth stone there.”
Mother goes down by the sea sometimes to stand on rocks. There is one smooth one she has found, which fits exactly one of her feet on it at a time. I can see her from my window down there, with one foot on the stone and one lifted in the air. I have not always been able to see her, because there used to be a house in the way. But the owners moved away, following everyone else who moved away, and Father burned down their house in spite. They owed him money when they moved away. They left their dog behind, but he is gone now.
I didn’t get any. Mother and Father only feed me leaves. This way, it is hard for my body to grow.
Not to interrupt her, I wrinkle my nose, so Mother knows to pull open the bottom plank of the box and clean the offal out of it and off of me. She sees this and does so, sermonizing on the handsomeness of God’s mustache, and saying she would, if it were legal, persuade Father to grow a mustache like that. It is quite a handsome mustache. This is why it is only legal for God to grow it and to look so handsome.
I think about hairs, starting in little follicles inside one’s skin and growing out, and I begin to breathe too hard and get dizzy. Mother mistakenly thinks it’s because the box is open, and she closes the plank, but I keep breathing too much air and inflating with it and I start to feel like I might expand and break the box, and I can’t breathe at all now, my lungs are billowing faster than ever but no air is getting in. Mother wraps herself around my head so I can see nothing, like I’m in a soft warm cave, and I can no longer feel my heartbeat tremoring the wood planks of the box. Her ribs press into my face through her leather skin.
I am okay now, I say, and she tells me how my brother is one of God’s monks, though he’s never met God personally. Still, he considers it an honor to be undertaking the holy work on God’s construction sites. That is what the letters say—see? They even taught him to read and write. Mother only knows to read because her father used to work in the city before God took the throne. Well, he made it first. Then took it. Father can follow along reading with her, but cannot read on his own. Brother had to pay for the courses and equipment himself, where they taught him about construction and safety. His work is volunteer, but he pays off for the courses by working more than his assigned sixty hours each week. Now he helps build a regional headquarters Temple of God, in a plains city, I think.
Father comes in and doesn’t hit Mother. In each hand, he holds out to her half of her flatrock. “It broke when I shot it.” She starts to weep. “My aim’s getting better,” he says with an eyebrow motion and a flick of his wrist so slight I think it might just be his shakes. She stops crying and just pushes my hair back over my ears. Father drops half of the stone so he has a hand to wrap around the bottle by Mother’s rags and drinks from it. He leaves the room, humming through the wet mouthful. He tried to drown me once, but I don’t remember it.
Mother tries to tilt the half-stone just so on the floor so she can stand on it with the pad of her foot if she lifts her heel up. Her calf muscles pop out like Father’s neck muscles, but she keeps falling. My bones screech, and I take the opportunity to let out some tears, so she’ll think that I am crying from sympathy instead of from the tectonic grind of happiness inside me. (A number of my ribs are fused together, like a tree grafting its branches onto itself.)
“When we die, Cren, our spirits fly out, and they get an office in God’s Regional Temple. For us, this is Temple K-143. We get to live on beams in the sky and call those who have not paid their tithes this quarter to inform them of the interest accruing and the enforcers coming to collect from them.” She cries at the beauty, “We’ll each have our own office.”
A letter from my brother today:
Respected Family Members,
Work on the construction in Region N-18 is progressing as planned. Praise be to God’s Economic Acumen, which has provided sufficient funding for my food and housing. I have performed Adequately in the eyes of God, and of his on-site supervisor, Tarko Flek . You should feel a level of pride in me appropriate to the level at which I have performed. Remember that your Tithes are due at the end of this 3rd quarter, Godtober 14th .
This exchange has been pleasant and rewarding.
Selli Forst (deceased)
Mother says he writes like a poet. I have never read a poet, but I do not doubt Mother. Father merely grunts and puts a chapped finger under the last word. “Think that’s a promotion?”
“It must be,” Mother says, “Last time he was a ‘recaptured–awaiting trial’ and before that a ‘deserted.’”
“He’s come a long way since ‘Brother of the Order of the Fork Lift’, hasn’t he?”
Mother folds up the letter and tucks it bird-like into her bosom. “I’m going to try to feel an adequate level of pride now.” She sits cross-legged and stares at the ground determinedly.
I feel the cold hard mouth of the bottle between my teeth, and I accept the wet fire Father pours down my throat. It is warm inside my box, and it makes the happiness go dim for awhile. It replaces it with something pleasant.
“I wonder if he’ll meet God soon,” Mother moons.
Their Tithe is due next week, so they have decided it is time to sell me. Mother spends the morning trying to balance on her half flatstone while Father makes space for me and my box on the cart.
The road bumps and jars and makes my face twitch with happiness, and I feel so very well-contained in my box. The bone that grew out of my arm has skin grown over it now, so even that is contained, except for a small nub at the end that looks like a horn or a fingernail. The thought of someone buying me and taking me out of my box is worrisome. What if I dissolve when the wind hits me and my box is not here to hold me together?
Father cracks open a nut, and I shudder.
We reach a clump of buildings, and Mother and Father run frantically screaming in all directions. I didn’t know buildings could curve like this. Where do they keep the corners? When they calm, Father slams Mother with her rock and her foot cracks under it. He explains to me (though he is too close and loud for me to clearly hear him, so I mostly gather the message from his amputated echoes) that this, this, it used to be our fucking city, our fucking. GAH. People. All left. Gone. No one to… to buy, to sell, to fuckingfucking fuck. Shit (shit–it–it–i–i). He goes back to kick Mother on the ground, but she stabs his calf with some glass she found. Her hand bleeds too, from how she held the shard while stabbing. A strange old man walks out from a side street, pulling a cart behind him. When Father sees the man through his tears, he scrambles to his foot and drags himself over to the white-hair and tells him about me. “Just look at him. Hilarious! And he has this nub growing out of one of his arms. Imagine the fun you could have, showing him off!”
The old man silently rummages through his cart and brings out a bottle of Father’s drink.
“No, no. Money. We need to pay our Tithe.”
The old man thrusts the bottle at him again. Father looks around at the city, then holds up two fingers. The old man pulls another bottle out of his cart and hands them both over. Father and Mother cheer, and she takes her locket off to put it around my neck. “God be with you,” she hastily murmurs, returning to the cart with her hand wrapped in her skirt, limping so Father has to support her on the side that he crushed her foot.
When they leave, the old man looks at the locket. “They’re still using that old picture, huh?” he asks. This is when I recognize his mustache and faint.
I come back awake.
“But your hair is so white,” I say.
“That’s what thirty years does,” he tells me. “Are they still rolling out those old videos on TV too?” he asks me, and I nod. “Smart. No signs of a struggle. That’s why they’re up in their skyscrapers, running the world, and we’re here, trying to trap some wolf meat.”
This is when I notice that my box is gone, and I am laying on the ground naked. My body is still pulled all together much in the shape of a box though. My muscles have never been used, and when I try to struggle, my legs sort of flutter, and that is all. “I see you’re thinking of running away,” he says, and laughs very hard. His knife is serrated, and just one tug pulls my side open. The blood oozes out in starts and stops, which seems strange until I realize it must be my heartbeat pushing it out. I howl for God to help me, but he shrinks back into the bushes with his pistol and knife in hand. A wolf howls somewhere close. Everything starts to go warm and far, and finally, I’m not happy anymore. Not happy at all.