[O]n the contrary, everything in it is both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally…. We can cut wherever we please…. Chop it into numerous pieces and you will see that each one can get along alone. — Charles Baudelaire, “To Arsene Houssaye”
It was that great modernist monk of the late fourteenth century, Baudelard, who first codified the principle of spontaneous generation. He had stowed away a porcelain saucer of skunk meat high in a cupboard where no animal–including the human kind–could reach it. In truth, he had set it aside like manna, afraid that one day the countryside would have scant meat if he and his fellow monks kept hunting as they had all that blustery fall.
A week later, as Baudelard dusted the cupboard, he rediscovered the meat, writhing with worms and quilled his findings in a thirty-pound volume of his accumulated observations.
Yet Baudelard was no one-trick pony of a natural philosopher who folds his hands to rest on laurels. He understood that this principle had to be developed to its fullest, for “To understand the essence of nature,” as he was fond of informing his fellow monks spraying a mouthful of his sibilant noon meal: day-old bread, goat cheese and wine, “is to understand the mind of God.” So Baudelard cut worms at varying lengths to see if life might sprout again.
And, lo, they did grow full and wriggling blood-red with both head and tail intact, whichever was the original of which. The confusion brought him to recall a minor poet friend of his, the Englishman Geoffrey Chaucer. He had started a series of semi-bawdy, semi-humorous tales of wanderers mocking the Old English tales of heroes, using the vulgar, common English tongue. Chaucer and Baudelard both saw the stories–pale imitations of Boccaccio–as best fit for lining refuse bins.
To test just how far the principle of spontaneous generation went, they took his original manuscript, mulched it, stirred in earthworms, water, and ink, and let the rotting mass germinate for several months. Chaucer was probably over-eager and exhumed the manuscript prematurely. The Canterbury tales were still unfinished and a bit raw, but Chaucer corrected the earthworms’ grammatical errors and found ways to punch up the bawdiness.
The triumphant success of Baudelard’s literary experiment, logically lead him to human beings as his next test subject. The rest, as you know, is history–eternal glory springs from temporary gore. Even now, a century later, Baudelard’s achievements remain the high-water mark of natural philosophy and letters.
Carla backed up so she could see the reef better. A tessellation of almost-identical shells, each occupied by something vaguely resembling an octopus, individually as intelligent as a cat, and about half the size of a cryopod. As in a coral, the “animals” were connected, forming one colonial organism. It sounded like the cell right in front of her was the one that had spoken. Last time, the colony had been much smaller, and it had not understood her next question.
“Which one of you spoke?”
I am only one. There is no one else but you.
That was interesting. The first few visits, she had not been sure it recognized her as an independent entity. And the language lessons she’d broadcast from the buoy seemed to have been assimilated. Was it gaining intelligence as it grew? She went through the rest of the questions, recording the answers.
“I’ll be back next year. Your health and prosperity.”
As on her previous visits, it only responded to direct questions.
You have returned. Why?
The reef was huge, extending several meters above sea level and for kilometers along the sand ridge. The base was lost in darkness. She hovered above the waves on the seaward side. As always, it seemed that the polyp directly in front of her was the speaker, though she never could see an organ moving or vibrating. She set up a slow leftward drift of the skimmer, to see if the conversation stayed with the original polyp or moved with her.
“You are my research project,” she said. “I study you, to find out how you grow, how you think, what you do.” The reef was silent for a bit.
Again, why? Small organisms that I eat don’t visit me. Only you visit me, and you are not like anything else I know.
The voice moved with her, transferring seamlessly from one polyp to the next.
“I visit you because my people want to learn about others. Because we are not alone.”
Do you know others like me?
“I don’t,” she said. She and her Thesis Committee had agreed to say nothing about the fossil reefs stranded 100 meters above sea level. The reef spoke again.
I will create a motile form. It will transport my essence as you do for your “people.” There will be more like me. They will speak with you.
Your health and prosperity.
Laura stood on a kitchen chair and shined the little red flashlight at the top closet shelf, but the only thing she saw was the yellowed contact paper: no light bulbs.
“Angie!” she shouted, stepping down. Angie poked her head in from the home office, formerly a pantry.
Laura walked over and put both her hands on Angie’s cheeks. “Sweetie, did we or didn’t we talk about the light bulbs?”
“Light bulbs … ?”
“About if one of us used the last one, we would write it on the grocery list.”
“Oh that! Sure we did. Do I get to call you anal again?”
“No, you do not. Because one of us–not me–used the last light bulb and didn’t write it on the list.”
Angie took both of Laura’s hands in hers, kissed her, then turned back to her computer. “Not guilty, sorry.”
“It wasn’t me,” Laura said. “I replaced a bulb three days ago, and there were still two left.”
“Still not me.”
“You know you don’t always pay attention to these things–and this is the third time we’ve been out since Christmas!”
“Maybe your Mom cursed the closet. She said she was a witch.”
“My mother is not a witch, she’s mentally ill. Remember when we caught her with that mouse?”
“Relax … your blood pressure! Now, please let me work.”
Laura stood for a moment in stupefaction, then shoved the kitchen chair back into place and shut the closet door with unnecessary force. She left the kitchen with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Blood pressure!” Angie sang out.
Behind the closet door, past the top shelf, through a gap in the ceiling that led to a crawlspace, in a long gallery only a foot high, a mouse sighed in relief. She nosed her two new prizes into place, wrapped bare wire around each of their bases, then connected the terminals. Finally she went back and reconnected a bit of insulated wire. The crawlspace lit up with dozens of light bulbs: Christmas tree bulbs, floods, standard lamp bulbs, frosted globes, and more. Many were masked with bits of colored paper and fabric over toothpick frames, so the mouse was surrounded with glowing colors, varied and warm and mixing subtly where they overlapped. The mouse sighed and lay down to sleep in her fairyland, soothed by the faint tapping of the human woman’s fingers on her computer keyboard below.
In this kingdom, even beggars can become something better.
It is a promise that has led us all to this long line of supplicants, waiting for a hot meal and the opportunity to be chosen. I stand among the stinking hordes, darkly-hooded, hunched, ignored.
A small man walks the line, making a selection. He reaches me; I straighten, pull the hood back a little; my eyes remain shadowed. He picks up the glimmer of skin, full lips, a finely-boned face.
And I do, passing those envious unchosen, through bronze doors, into the great hall, empty as a skeleton’s ribcage but for the triple throne. The little man leads me to a small dark door. He ushers me through, does not follow. The door closes with the scratching of a key in the lock, and I am alone in a dimly lit room; alone with the Three.
‘Beggar-maid. Now is your chance to become part of us, something new,’ whispers the male. He is well-made, but his skin is puffy. The women are pale, frayed. Obeying the lore, they have not ventured into the sun for a long time. This is no harem; they control him, this whole spectacle was their idea.
Trying to infect themselves with gluttonous feasting on cattle-blooded peasants; committing pointless murders when the only thing that will make them like me is a bloodline, is evolution. It was false piety, foolish games – they didn’t think the Blood Mother would rise. But their prayers woke me and rise I did, painfully, unwillingly. I came.
‘No,’ I say. ‘But it’s your chance to become something other.’
My cloak falls back and my wings shake loose. The Three see the full glory of my face, luminous as the moon and framed by black hair, with white-as-snow fangs, red-as-blood lips. The face painted on temple walls; they’ve seen it so often they’ve forgotten to fear.
‘Stolen blood will not lengthen your lives.’ My shadow grows, engulfs them.
Their blood is flat, diluted. But it is enough after my centuries of sleep.
The little man enters, later; he heard too many screams. He eyes the finely-dressed husks. He is pragmatic, clever, sees an advantage for himself.
‘There will be but one ruler here,’ I tell him.
He nods. ‘Yes, my Queen.’
‘Then bring them to me and choose carefully.’