I grew up in a tenement that looked out on the back of the minotaur’s head. The minotaur statue is older than the city and taller than any building in it. Our tenement is nearly as tall, not nearly as old, and in far worse repair.
The statue gazes out across the plain of salt, which the scholars say was a sea that dried up years ago, and my siblings and I gaze with it into the hazy horizon.
The scholars don’t know who built the statue, or why, but everyone else says it’s a marker to guide travelers over the salt plain. However, everyone, including the scholars, agrees the plain is impossible to cross–too vast, too empty of landmarks. With all the wind-stirred dust, you can’t navigate by stars; by day, you can barely guess where the sun is.
My brothers and sisters and I do go out onto the plain at daybreak and dusk, when the twilight seeps into everything, and we might be walking on a flat of sky. It’s the one advantage we’ve got in the salt quarter. The old city has history; the river districts have trade and communication with distant lands; and the elite quarter has the evening cool of the mountains. A half hour at either end of the day to explore an empty blue world doesn’t seem like much in comparison.
We find our way back by the broken silhouettes of the mountains, and the prongs of the minotaur’s horns above them. One night, we found a man collapsed at the base of the minotaur statue, covered in salt dust. Under the white coating, we saw his glasses and boots were the blue of twilight on the plain.
We went for a healer and returned to find the man gone. The scholars and city guard told us he was a lunatic who’d wandered out onto the plain. We didn’t believe them; we knew the impossible when we saw it.
They built his pyre on our rooftop–our building was closest, and they didn’t want to move him far, which made us even more suspicious. We knew secret ways to the roof, so we crept up and stole his boots and glasses.
We argued all night and drew lots. In the predawn twilight, the glasses show me trails on the plain. I set my foot on one to see where the boots will take me…
The chicken settled into the in basket on my desk for lack of a better seat. He was clearly uncomfortable.
“I gather you’re here about your kind being killed for us to eat?” I said.
“Oh,” said the chicken. “So that part’s true. But–”
“Let me explain. When we kill a chicken–and by ‘we’ I mean some anonymous worker way off in a processing plant somewhere–we make most of the parts of that chicken into food. For instance, we might roast the whole chicken together–”
“After a decent funeral, I hope? No, I’m kidding. Sorry: nervous habit.”
I cleared my throat. The conversation was uncomfortable, but the chicken was more diplomatic than I’d been led to expect. “So we might roast the whole chicken, or we might use the breast meat in strips in one place and the wings in another … are you sure you’re all right?”
The chicken was scratching at the papers beneath him now, his feathers looking a little ruffled. “Honestly?” he said. “You aren’t quite the barbaric kind of creature I was expecting, but in a way this is worse. Your talk is pretty cold-blooded, for a mammal.”
“Well, unless we’re going to live on apples and tree nuts, we have to kill something, right?”
“But here we are, having a conversation … are you saying you’d just as soon eat me as talk with me? How do you justify that?”
“Listen, I’d love to see better treatment of your people while you’re alive, but it’s not as though you contemplate your impending doom the way a human would. And chickens don’t actually talk.”
“But … I can talk! Clearly your idea that chickens can’t talk is erroneous in some way.”
“You’re fictional. I don’t eat fictional chickens.”
“Uh … oh,” said the chicken. He spontaneously let out a kind of “buGAW!” noise, then looked embarrassed. “So that’s how it is?”
“That’s how it is.”
“This didn’t come out the way I was hoping.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll just let myself out, then.”
“Sounds good.” I smiled perfunctorily, and he flapped down to the floor. “Oh, and would you send in the Amazon rain forest on your way out? Thanks.”
They decide a baby is the answer. The baby is plaster and lathe over cracked brick, a rickety, newborn bridge, a pair of handcuffs. The baby, they think. The baby.
She drinks nothing but seltzer. She swallows the air. He urges steak on her, potatoes and meatloaf, pineapple upside-down cake and caramel apples. Sticky things, heavy things. “Eat,” he says. He clutches at her hand. She shakes her head at him and drifts away from the dinner table. His forehead crumples and his shoulders tumble down. She grows larger and lighter.
He wishes she were happy. Instead, she is buoyant, giddy and strange. She doesn’t lumber the way other pregnant women do. She steps lightly, floats up the stairs. She never trips; she glides. She sleeps on her back now, her stomach straining up toward the ceiling fan, the sky light. It could break through the glass and drag her soaring through the sky, arms and legs dangling and limp, her enormous belly taking her away. He sleeps downstairs on the couch and wonders if she’ll be there in the morning.
When she goes into labor, she begins to laugh. She holds her belly and doubles over. Her laughter fills up the living room, bursts like bubbles in his ears. She laughs through delivery, and he sits in the corner, grim. The baby comes quickly, and when they spread her out naked for weighing on the cold scale, she bounces up and wafts through the sterile air of the hospital room. The baby glances off the corner of the room and glides across the face of the overhead lights. She casts a tiny shadow.
“I’ll get a step stool,” one nurse says, backing out of the room. The doctor sits on the floor. On the labor table, emptied out and hollow, she laughs. He stands and watches his child rotating slowly under the air vent, far above his head.
She will not let him touch their baby. She holds the baby in the crook of her arm. She holds her by the heel. She sits and looks at her floating above. She puts on her housecoat and goes out into the yard. She ignores him. She ignores the neighbors lining their driveways and yards. Clutching the baby’s heel, holding tight, she lifts up on to her tiptoes and reaches upwards, waiting for a strong enough gust of wind.
Summer was over. Ripe melons on the yetrop trees occasionally burst in the sun, scattering dollops of sticky juice across the ground to the pleasure of the ants and flung its feather seeds on the wind. Pairs of harburt birds flapped lazily over the orchard, in search of cattle that Takashi let amble too far from the stinging reach of his air-pellet gun. He hated harming life.
Apart from one person, Takashi’s life was idyllic and calm. While the world toiled in automated towers scratching the upper atmosphere, Takashi absorbed the soft chirr of insects and rustle of tree limbs, watching over cattle grazing. That one person was his laser-packing boss, Brunhilda, whom he half-admired, half-despised and who stopped by daily to say that the cattle had grazed the wrong pasture, or that he ought to kill the harburts.
Often she wore an invisibility shield to creep up on Takashi and catch him idle. Although she rarely did, she demanded action on postponed chores: Prune back the yetrops in the southwest; thin the northwest thickets; cull the nonproductive silk-milk goats wasting resources–a chore he often neglected until she’d done it herself, dinging his life rating to upper management. He’d never looked at his life rating but suspected he’d fallen to eighty percent of his allotted two hundred years. He could have knocked some off hers, but it would have hurt him more than her in terms of guilt.
One afternoon, lounging under a yetrop, a ripe melon burst on his head. Takashi spluttered, wiped the sticky juice stinging his eyes. Brunhilda stood over him, not smiling. “You have unfinished work.”
“I’m on break.”
“It’s overdue. Your dog–”
“–was to be recycled last week.”
“I put in for a stay.”
Takashi stood. “She’s my companion.”
Brunhilda stepped into his space. “Your companion is deaf, lame, half-blind, not even human. Help me out here. I’m trying to get into human management.”
“What do I get?”
“I won’t ding you.”
Takashi glared. He grabbed the laser out of her holster, briefly pointed it at her, then off to the side. A harburt squawked and tumbled. Its companion dove after.
“Great. How about the dog?”
“Recalculate resource distribution, and get back to me.”
Resource distribution buoyed for the area, allowing Nana’s stay of execution, but she died shortly thereafter. Takashi took sick leave. That Brunhilda was displeased about the entire affair was the only comfort Takashi had.