Nipples are worrying; so much so that, as I emerges slowly out of water, I can almost feel the hands of II and III on I’s bare chest, trying to brush off the nipples as if they were two prominent clusters of dust, something useless or threatening. But they are what makes I human, the most human yet. In this countdown naming system, many before I went without nipples, or lips, or eyes, things that were considered unnecessary protuberances, small deviations from the overall smoothness of the surface, which was, is, understandable, since a protuberance often means illness, disease, mysterious fluids welling up under your innocent skin. Now I has been given nipples, and they have tested everything and washed I. I even has all the hair one might call human hair. They see that it is so and finally they trust I with the shape, which is installed on I’s head like a hat. The shape is the mother of all shapes, they tell I, and then shapes birth colors. They are still teaching I how to shift I’s body in front of a mirror so that, when I looks, I sees whatever shape I wants. The shape contains triangles, rectangles, squares, circles, ovals, etc; it has lines and dots, too. As I emerges, newly washed and clean, opening I’s mouth for them to rinse the inside, I closes I’s eyes and feels at once the weight of invisible hands on I’s skin, of the shape on I’s head, and thinks of what they say, Green is the child of blue and negligence. I closes both eyes and welcomes the beginning of a human life, the first of countless times of walking naked into and out of water.
The day I was born, I gave birth to my mother. I gave birth to a fairy as well, so that I could ask my mother what a fairy was. I swam into water, which I did not know could break, and as I plunged headlong into that warm, broken water, my mother began to take form and close around me with such a velocity that I violently wriggled my slippery, scaly self for fear that she might devour me whole, before I made my escape. I looked back and saw on my mother’s face what one would call a serene smile, her mouth a deep crack on a mouse grey stone. I let a tiny volcano erupt and its docile smoke settled, vaguely, into a fairy, a shape I had never seen before but knew had stemmed from me too. On my body was already carved the possibility of everything that was to be. Under the shadow of those translucent wings, thick crimson larva flew along the spine of the volcano like wild blood. And the origin of my mother’s serenity dawned on me; its origin was the lack of blood. She formed around my birth tunnel, the locus of a visceral pain that remained absent, had to be imagined. The volcano pulsated and pushed the fairy out, bleeding so much that no blood was left for my mother. I asked her what a fairy was but already I knew it was what I was not, born into fire instead of water, creating nothing out of nothing. Am I good? I asked her. Am I perfect? But already I knew I was the most perfect yet. Later they attached me to I’s head. I sat there and thought of the womb, which resembled a pear, and as I thought so, I saw its reflection and transformed into a pear too. Then they led I and me out of the forest. Behind us, my mother dissolved, into her water, was gone. The fairy liquified and trickled down our skin.
“The freeways are in great condition.”
At the edge of the forest, the beardog says so to the shape, which looks like a pear. The beardog drives an emerald green minivan, which is now parked at the nearly vacant parking lot half a mile away. It is here to take I and the shape to the nearest Ralphs, which has been operating at regular business hours.
“You would do well at Ralphs, if you lick yourself clean of blood. Can you lick? Do you have a tongue?”
Staring at it, the beardog almost can’t resist the impulse to touch the shape with the tip of its tongue, to hold it between its teeth and suck; not to bite or swallow, just to feel the texture of such a thing that it knows to be a piece of fruit but has never had any direct interaction with. The beardog also notices that the shape, while resembling a pear, shows a certain similarity to its head.
“Are you mimicking the shape of my head, or is it a mere coincidence? When I look at you, I get the strange feeling of standing in front of a mirror.”
Behind them a thin creek flows east. On its south bank, under a banyan tree, I bends over the calm surface of water and shifts I’s body, observing its reflection. As I keeps shifting, blood keeps dripping down the shape, gathering underneath it before spreading out in tiny streams like petals. Blood smells sweet. The beardog opens its mouth and sticks out its tongue which is mirrored, right away, by the shape. I walks over. I picks it up and puts it in I’s mouth, where it becomes a voice. “It’s time,” I says.
“All is well-preserved,” the beardog says. “You’ll be the first human to drive on the freeway in three hundred years.”
The freeway kneels before them and extends its arms. They drive on it as if driving into it, to accelerate is to slit it open and then exit through its wound. The minivan is the only car on the freeway, yet there grows in them the feeling of being watched, by the road itself and the trees on either side, by the sky shown between those trees, by the billboards erected along the road, each one hundred feet apart. When I speaks, the shape, which is now a tongue, trembles in I’s mouth. “They didn’t believe humans could live outside the forest,” I says, “but they taught me how to drive a stick shift.”
“The figure on that billboard has no eyes,” the shape says. When the shape speaks, it trembles in I’s mouth, so it’s hard to tell which of them is talking.
“We want as few eyes around as possible,” the beardog says. “Eyes are dangerous.”
“That figure reminds me of my mother,” the shape says. “She had the same color and the same posture.”
They drive past that plum red being with no eyes but a mouth that is almost a perfect circle. It’s this circle in particular, the shape tells them, that reminds it of its mother.
“You have no mother, only a manufacturer,” I says, “just like me. I am the last one created in their image; you are the residue, an echo, of all that energy spent on failed attempts at a sufficiently human body. You fabricate your memories as all echoes do, everything out of everything already gone.”
“There’ll be more of such things at Ralphs,” the beardog says, “motherless things with anonymous manufacturers. Also a steady temperature. Controlled humidity. Fluorescent lights. It will give you a taste of what it’s like to live in the city, among animals.”
Once we are inside, I spits me out of I’s mouth. I fall, crash onto the floor, a splash, and spread out into a thin, shiny film. The beardog has to gather me in its arms and carry me to where it stores those older shapes formed before me, echoes bouncing back from II or III or XIII or some much bigger number, haphazardly assembled bodies I have never met but somehow remember. The shapes are hung in a freezer, one of the freezers, next to boxed ice cream and microwave dinners, each a pear-shaped light bulb swinging back and forth, slightly, gently, like ripe fruits too heavy and sweet for the branch, too eager to fall, which could also be an inconsequential side effect of the ventilation system. I am hung in the middle of them and within seconds I take their shape. I can feel something new, a layer of skin, grow on my body, until finally my body is nothing but skin made of glass. Even when I was a pear, I didn’t feel my skin so vividly because then it always grew along the flesh underneath it. Now I know what it’s like to be a specimen of a single organ. I realize, too, at this moment, that I spat me out when I was I’s tongue, so again, I has no voice, no way to talk to the beardog or any other animals coming to see this human body that has made it without falling apart halfway. Because I am the most perfect yet, the beardog ties a small paper bag around me, as protection. I swing back and forth between its fingers, slightly, gently, a hollowed-out mouth in the forest of hollowed-out mouths, each murmuring memories of a mother that never was.
“Indeed,” the beardog says, “in the beginning we thought it was a forest, too.”
They sit down, the beardog and I, facing the automatic glass door. They sit down on the floor, which I soon realizes is smoother and harder than the kind of floor I’s feet are used to, and watch the air dancers wave and bend frenetically in the parking lot. The parking lot is taken over by overgrown ferns and mosses, and these enormous balloon figures stand like carnivorous trees with their bright pink and yellow. In the beginning, the beardog says, there were so many of them that everyone thought they were trees, and some were pulled down so a nest could be built. But they were hollow as no animal had ever known hollow could be. Even those flies tangled up in a spiderweb, their poisoned flesh melting away, sucked clean by their predator—even those flies would not have been so profoundly empty. “A truly frightening thing,” says the beardog. “On the other hand, though,” it adds, “they do seem clean, at least if you look from far away.”
I opens I’s mouth but makes no sound. I starts to miss having a tongue.
“Notice also,” the beardog says, “how much the one on the right looks like it’s been flayed from the one on the left. You could almost piece them back together.”
I starts to miss the shape, but I can’t say it out loud. I recalls the first time I went into water and the dream I had there, while being washed, a dream of wavelets shimmering around I’s contour and their tiny sound materializing into the shape. If they don’t die, I heard someone say, we can reconsider going out…
“You should shower before others come,” the beardog says. “Take that thing with you so you may have a shower head.”
When I walks into the shower room for a minute, I forgets how to shower like a human, so I stands there. I looks down at the shape, hoping, halfheartedly, that it might transform back into a tongue. But there is no mirror, no creek, no glass door, nothing to reflect and shift and above all, no tongue to model after. So I splits open the shape and places it under the naked hose, from which burning hot water gushes out and falls on the shape like sawdust. I wonders if it’s painful, if water suddenly becomes something that may hurt once you enter the city. The shape swallows water and holds it inside until it bears no trace of anything it has ever been before. I seals it up and embraces it, rolling it around I’s body: a sphere, nearly transparent, its content quivering and pushing against its boundary, on the verge of bursting into pieces. When I holds the shape and presses it onto I’s chest, I sees that this sphere now resembles a tumor growing on I’s skin like the manifestation of all their previous worries, some inevitable malfunction of a body that suffers this many irregularities covered in so little hair and fur. As I pours water out of the shape to have a quick rinse, I hears footsteps approaching from every direction and remembers, Sound travels faster in liquid than in air. And I wonders how those animals might treat I, as a reminiscence or a prediction, since no one knows anymore whether to call the reappearance of humans a return or an invasion. I stands under the hose and opens I’s mouth like the shape, tasting water that is not meant to be tasted. I showers as a human and walks out naked into the circle of animals gathered around, waiting. The shape, shapeless, colorless, wraps around I like an impossible layer of skin, ready to break and dissolve, waiting.
Beth Frey is a Canadian artist who works with a variety of media, including drawing, painting, video, and sculpture. Frey has an MFA in Painting and Drawing from Concordia University in Montreal and a BFA from the University of Victoria. She has exhibited her work in a number of solo and group shows across Canada, in Mexico, and the United States. She currently divides her time between Mexico City and Montreal.
Yuxin Zhao earned her MFA in Creative Writing from California Institute of the Arts. She writes fiction, personal essays, and sometimes poems.