by Gail Hareven
May 4, 2009
The news of the decision to close the Preserves was undoubtedly the worst I had ever received. I’d known for months that it was liable to happen, but I’d deluded myself into thinking that I had more time. There had always been controversy about the need for maintaining Preserves (see B. L. Sanders, Z. Goroshovski, and Cohen and Cohen), but from this remote region I was simply unable to keep abreast of all the political ups and downs. Information got through, but to evaluate its importance, to register the emerging trends, without hearing what people were actually saying in the corridors of power was impossible. So I can’t blame myself if the final decision came as a shock.
The axe fell suddenly. At six in the evening, when I got out of the shower, I found the announcement on my computer. It was just four lines long. I stood there, with a towel wrapped around my waist, reading the words that destroyed my future, that tossed away a professional investment of more than fifteen years. I can’t say that I’d never envisioned this possibility when I chose to study the Slows. I can’t say that it hadn’t occurred to me that this might happen. But I believed that I was doing something important for the human race, and, mistakenly, I thought that the authorities felt the same way. After all, they had subsidized my research for years. Eliminating the Preserves at this stage was a loss I could barely conceive of, a loss not only for me and for my future—clearly I couldn’t avoid thinking about myself—but for humanity and its very ability to understand itself. Politicians like to refer to the Slows as being deviant. I won’t argue with that, but as hard as it is, as repulsive and distressing, we have to remember that our forefathers were all deviants of this kind.
I confess that I passed the rest of the evening with a bottle of whiskey. Self-pity is inevitable in situations like this, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. The whiskey made it easier for me to get through the first few hours and fall asleep, but it certainly didn’t make it any easier to get up in the morning. As if to spite me, the sky was blue, and the light was too brilliant. As often happens in this season, the revolting smell of yellow flowers went straight to my temples. When I pulled myself out of bed, I discovered that the sugar jar was empty, and I’d have to go to the office for my first cup of coffee. I knew that at some point during the day I would have to start packing up, but first I needed my coffee. I had no choice. With an aching head and a nauseating taste in my mouth, I dragged myself to the office shed. I opened the door and found a Slow woman sitting in my chair.
from the issuecartoon banke-mail thisDespite the security guards’ repeated instructions, I tended to forget to lock doors. Our camp was fenced in, we all knew one another, and the savages entered only during working hours, and then only with permission. How had she sneaked in?
Years of field work had taught me how to cope with all sorts of situations. “Good morning,” I said to her. I didn’t even consider reaching for the button to call the guards. True, there had been occasional attacks in other camps, but, for all sorts of reasons, there had been none in ours to date. Besides, as I always said, the people most likely to be attacked were the policemen and the missionaries, not me, so I had a logical justification for bending the rules a little.
The savage woman didn’t answer me. She leaned over to pick something up from the other side of the desk, and immediately I became afraid. The fear spread rapidly from my legs to my chest, but my brain kept working. So the rumor was true: they had got their hands on a cache of old weapons. To them, perhaps we were all alike after all—policeman or scientist, it didn’t matter much from their point of view. But then the woman turned back to me: she was holding a human larva strapped into a carrier, which she laid on the table.
“You promised you wouldn’t take our babies from us,” she said in the angry, agitated voice so typical of the Slows. As my adrenaline level fell, it was hard for me to steady my legs. The savage woman fixed me with her black eyes and seemed to see this. “You pledged that you wouldn’t take them. There are treaties, and you signed them,” she spat out impatiently. I was always amazed by how fast news reached the Slows. It was clear to anybody who worked with them that they were hiding computers somewhere, and perhaps they also had collaborators on the political level. The nearest settlement of Slows was a half-hour flight away. They weren’t allowed to keep hoverers, and there were no tracks in the region, so to get to our camp she had to have set out the evening before. It seemed that she had known about the decision to close the Preserves even before I did.
“Those treaties were signed many generations ago. Things change,” I said, though I knew that it was silly to get into an argument with one of them.
“My grandmother signed them.”
“Is it your baby?” I asked, making a point of using their term, as I gestured at the human larva on my desk.
“It’s mine.” Luckily, the larva was asleep. Fifteen years of work had more or less inured me, but at that hour of the morning, and in my condition, I knew that my stomach wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of a squirming pinkish creature.
“Do you have others?”
“Maybe.” The female Slows don’t usually give birth to more than three or four offspring. Given the way they are accustomed to raising offspring, even that many is hard work. This savage woman was young, as far as I could judge. She might have concealed another larva somewhere before coming here. There was no way of knowing.
“You can’t break the agreements,” she said, cutting into my thoughts. “No. Listen to me. You’ve violated almost every clause. Every few years you renege on something. When you forced us into the Preserves, you promised us autonomy, and since then you’ve gradually stolen everything from us. From hard experience we’ve learned not to trust you. Like sheep, we kept quiet and let you push us farther and farther into a corner. But now I’m warning you. Just warning you: don’t you dare touch the children!”
Many people will think this strange, but over the years I’ve learned to see a kind of beauty in the Slow women. If you ignore the swollen protrusions on their chests and the general swelling of their bodies, if you ignore their tendency to twist their faces wildly, with some experience you can distinguish between the ugly ones and the pretty ones, and this one would definitely have been considered pretty. If her grandmother had really signed the treaties, as she said, she might have been one of their aristocrats, the descendant of a ruling dynasty. It was evident that she could express herself.
“Will you agree to have some coffee with me?” Field work often involves long hours of conversation. With time I had got used to the physical proximity of the Slows, and sometimes, when their suspicions subsided—when they accepted that I wasn’t a missionary in disguise—they told me important things. The new decree had put an end to my research, but I might still be able to write something about the reaction of the savages to the development. Attentiveness had become a habit with me, and, besides, I was not yet capable of packing up the office.
“Coffee,” I repeated. “Can I make some for you?” Since she didn’t answer and just stared at me with a blurred face, I said, “You’ve certainly come a long way. It wouldn’t hurt me to have a cup, either. Wait a minute, and I’ll make some for both of us.” The Slows had grown used to harsh treatment, and when they encountered one of us who treated them courteously they tended to get flustered. Indeed, this dark-eyed woman seemed confused, and she kept her mouth shut while I operated the beverage machine.
No doubt the savages were a riddle that science had not yet managed to solve, and, the way things seemed now, it never would be solved. According to the laws of nature, every species should seek to multiply and expand, but for some reason this one appeared to aspire to wipe itself out. Actually, not only itself but also the whole human race. Slowness was an ideology, but not only an ideology. As strange as it sounds, it was a culture, a culture similar to that of our forefathers. People don’t know, or perhaps they forget, that when the technique for Accelerated Offspring Growth (A.O.G.) was developed it wasn’t immediately put to use. Until the first colonies were established on the planets, the U.N. Charter prohibited A.O.G. It’s not pleasant to think about it now, but the famous Miller, German, and Yaddo were subjected to quite a bit of condemnation for their early work on the technique, all of it on ethical grounds. In a society that had not yet conquered space, A.O.G. was viewed as a catastrophe that, within ten years, was liable to cause a population explosion on Earth, which would exterminate life through hunger and disease. The morality of the Slows had an undeniably rational basis, under those conditions. We may be revolted by the thought, but the fact is that Miller, German, and Yaddo had all spent the first years of their lives as human larvae, not unlike the one that was now lying on my desk; they, too, had been slowly reared by savage females, just like the one who was waiting beside me for her coffee.
“We have to talk,” she said as I placed the cup on the desk and glanced for just a split second at the creature sleeping in the carrier. “There’s no reason for you to use power. There’s no point, because you have all the power anyway. We’re no threat to you.”
I knew something that she didn’t know, because it was a secret that hadn’t been publicized on the networks: in one of the colonies on Gamma, far from the Preserves, there had been an outbreak of Slowness. This was probably why the decision had been made to close all the Preserves at once—to eliminate any possibility of the infection spreading.
“It’s possible to compromise on all sorts of clauses,” the savage woman said, “so why not compromise with us? We’ll die out on our own in a few generations anyway. There are less than ten thousand of us left.”
The problem isn’t one of numbers, I thought, but I didn’t say it to her. The problem is that in many people’s eyes you are not a remnant but a gangrene that could spread and rot the entire body of humankind. Even I, with my interest in your way of life, can’t say for certain that the politicians are wrong about this.
“We’ve thought of all kinds of possibilities,” she said. “Since we have no choice, we’ll agree to let your missionaries into our settlements. We’ll guarantee their safety and give them complete freedom to talk to whomever they wish. We’ll agree that one parent’s consent is enough in order for a baby to be surrendered for accelerated growth, and we’ll make sure that parents obey that rule. What else do you want? What else can you demand? In the end, without wasting any more energy on us, you’ll get everything you want anyway.”
“Not this one,” I interjected, pointing at her larva. A tremor twisted her face and made it ugly. I drank the coffee and noticed that the larva had opened its eyes. The coffee was sour. The machine was apparently not working properly again. But there was no point in calling in a serviceman when I had only a few more days to spend here.
“Don’t take them away from us,” she whispered, and her voice shook. “I need at least a few years. You must allow us that. Why do you hate us so?”
The ardent possessiveness that savage parents—especially the mothers—display toward their offspring is the key to understanding the Slows’ culture. It’s clear that they don’t love their offspring the way we love ours. They make do with so few, and, at the rate they rear them, at best they get to know only their children’s children. Whereas even I—who have spent years away from civilization in barren camps like this one—have managed to produce seventeen sons and daughters and a lineage of at least forty generations. Still, they talk constantly about their love for their offspring, and its glory.
“Hate?” I said to her. “Hate is a strong word.”
The human larva turned its head and gaze toward the savage woman. Her eyes clung to it, and her chin quivered. She had pretty eyes. She had put on black and green makeup in my honor. A week or two of body formation would have made a good-looking woman of her, in anyone’s opinion. She trusted me, apparently, knowing who I was, having heard about me or made inquiries, and perhaps she hoped that, as a researcher, I would agree to represent her side. She had put herself in jeopardy by sneaking into my office in this way. Someone else in my place might have panicked, and an unnecessary accident might have taken place. Through her grimaces you could see a face that wasn’t at all stupid. She had certainly taken my well-known curiosity into account, and my composure. She knew that all I had to do was reach out and press a button, and they would come, chase her away, and take the larva from her. I wasn’t about to do that, but sooner or later, no matter where she hid, it would be taken.
In all my years of work, I’d refrained from saying anything that would identify me with the missionaries, but now, seeing the tremble of her chin, I heard their words of consolation coming from my mouth. So be it. In any event, my work had come to an end.
“I know what you think, what they’ve told you. Lots of misunderstandings and rumors circulate in the Preserves. Listen to me, I promise you that no harm will come to the children.”
“Do you mean that you won’t take them?” the savage princess asked in a soft, strange voice. “That the decision has been revoked?”
“Decisions aren’t my field. People like me don’t make policy. What I want to explain to you is another matter. Maybe you think that accelerated growth will shorten this offspring’s life. Believe me, woman, that’s a mistake. Whoever told you that was either wrong or lying. Our life span is no shorter than yours. Actually, the opposite is true: progress gives us a longer life. If your son is ultimately given over to A.O.G., he won’t lose even a single day. On the contrary, he can enjoy all the years before him as an independent adult. You’ll see your son’s children, and your descendants will inherit the planets.”
The savage woman twisted her jaw to the side. “You think we’re stupid.”
The Slows have manners of their own. You can’t expect them to behave like us. Still, in her present situation I would have expected her to make an effort. But the very fact that she wasn’t making an effort held my interest. Perhaps this was an opportunity for me to hear something new. Usually they were so cautious when speaking to us, and behaved evasively even with me.
But just at that moment the larva started to bleat, and the savage woman instantly lost her impertinence.
“You may do it,” I said to her. “Pick it up. I’ve been in the Preserves for years, and I’ve seen such things.”
Without looking at me, she freed the larva from the carrier and held it to her chest. I observed six of my offspring during the process of accelerated growth, and the distress of the first weeks, before they reached decent maturity, comes back to me every time I’m forced to observe a human larva up close. There are times in a person’s life that are meant to be private, and the state of infancy is certainly the most pronounced of these. The larva was silent for a moment, then it started to bleat again.
“How old is it?”
“Eleven weeks.” The most horrifying human larvae are the big ones, which already look like people but lack the stamp of humanity. At least this one was similar in dimensions to our offspring. Nearly three months old. He could have been a productive adult already. Footsteps could be heard outside, and the sound of two people talking. The savage woman’s eyes widened. She put her hand first to her mouth and then to the larva’s open mouth.
“Don’t worry. They won’t come in here. They know that I hold interviews.” The touch of the woman’s hand on the creature’s lips increased its discomfort, and now it raised its voice, screeching until its wrinkled face turned almost purple. Someone was liable to enter after all. The savage woman stuck a finger into the larva’s mouth, but it turned its head away and looked for something else.
“Don’t you feel sorry for it?” I asked, but she seemed not to hear me, cradling the larva in her arms and also turning her head here and there with an unfocussed look in her eyes.
Human beings as we know them are excited by every development in their offspring, because what purpose is there for the hard labor of parenthood if not to send forth an independent, productive adult who can satisfy his own needs? But the Slows appeared to enjoy the helplessness of their larvae—the lack of humanity, the deplorable fervor of the little creatures, their muteness, their mindless appetites, their selfishness, their ignorance, their inability to act. It seemed that the most disgusting of traits were what inspired the most love in savage parents.
The screeches stunned me. I was so riveted by the sight of that wriggling caterpillar that I almost missed the moment when the woman started talking again. “If we knew how much time was left for us . . .” So she didn’t know everything: the invasion would start that day; it might already have begun. “If we knew that we had another year or two, if you would only tell us how much time there is, people could prepare themselves.” Had she come as a spy? If they greeted the police with violence, they’d only bring disaster down upon themselves. A few spontaneous uprisings were to be expected. After all, theirs was a volatile culture. But an organized attack would be a kind of stupidity that was hard to fathom.
“I’m asking for so little,” the savage woman said. “Just this—to know how much time remains for us. Listen to me. I know you’re different from them. You’re not a missionary. You know us. You’re merciful, not like them. I feel it. You could have called the guards when you saw me here, but you didn’t do it. Maybe you once also had a baby you loved.”
The larva arched its body backward, and the woman unconsciously fingered the opening of her shirt. Suddenly I knew what she wanted to do, and with that thought the sourness of the coffee rose in my throat. To give it her milk bulges—that’s what she wanted, that’s why she was plucking at her shirt. When I was a student, I was forced to watch a film about ancient nutrition customs. It was for a course restricted to advanced students, but none of us were advanced enough to view that sight without a sharp feeling of nausea. From close up we watched the ravenous face of the larva and the swollen organ thrust into its wet mouth. It was a rather large larva, at least thirteen pounds, and the depraved sucking noises that it emitted mingled with the female’s bestial murmur. White liquid dripped down its chin, and the woman tickled its lips with her gland, holding the organ shamelessly between finger and lustful thumb. I still remember the strong protest voiced by three women students, which was understandable.
“If you’ll just answer me that,” the savage woman said, and her voice shook with feeling. “Just that.”
The emotionality of the Slows had the strange characteristic of clinging to me like a stain. As sometimes happened after a few hours of conversation with one of them, I began to feel polluted. “The good of the children is the only thing that we consider,” I said finally. “Do you want a cup of water? I see that you haven’t touched your coffee.”
When I got up and went back to the machine, the woman bent her body over the larva, almost concealing it under a black curtain of hair. The cold water refreshed my mouth, removed the traces of yesterday’s drink and the bitterness of the coffee, dislodged the clinging feeling. I drank two cups. It is sometimes possible to identify rational thought among the Slows, but their emotional exaggeration dilutes it. Though I had hoped to calm the savage woman, at that moment it was clear that there was no point in trying.
When I returned to the desk with a cup of water for her, I saw that she was rocking slowly on the chair, moving the larva rhythmically back and forth. It was tired from so much screeching, and its voice was growing weaker. She was so deeply immersed in her drugged movement that she didn’t notice me. I watched the two tired bodies moving together, and knew that soon, very soon, there would be an end to their suffering. The larva would become a man in control of his body, and she would accept it and smile. With clarity I saw that image, and, as though to transmit it to her, I reached out and placed my hand on her shoulder. All at once, like an animal, the woman recoiled, raised her head, and bared her teeth. The sudden movement jolted my body backward, and for a long moment we were frozen, twisted in mid-movement, looking into each other’s face.
“Don’t touch me!” she spat out, as though at an enemy. Her face was transparent, and I could read everything in it, all her distorted thoughts. She believed that what I wanted was to hold her soft body, to curl my fingers and grasp her flesh, to press it against mine and rub, blind and hopeless, against her milk glands. Her eyes, like snakes, penetrated my thoughts and fed them her abominable vision, the visions of a lower animal. For nine years I had been in the Preserves, and never had I experienced such a defilement.
“No one’s touching you,” I pronounced with difficulty, turning toward the door and putting my hand out to press the button. By the time the alarm went off, and the sound of the larva’s weeping reached me, I was already in the light—in the bright, bright light outside. ♦
(Translated, from the Hebrew, by Yaacov Jeffrey Green.)
PHOTOGRAPH: JUSTINE KURLAND, “BABY” (2004)/MITCHELL-INNES & NASH
Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2009/05/04/090504fi_fiction_hareven?currentPage=all#ixzz0cP4iCS3g