UNHOLY FAMILY, out of ideas with two more timeslots to fill before Xmas, becomes a reality show by announcing that it’s always been one.
“All we’ve ever done is film what’s going on with you people,” it announces in a huge banner across the facade of City Hall.
Cowed by the prospect of our day blimping out around us with nothing to watch, we go to the town square to see what’s going on with us.
What’s going on is the annual Giant Chinese (Anti-)Abortion Rally, in which each side repeats its position from last year, competing to get as close to verbatim as possible.
“It’s a simple matter of matching fetus to tube,” Professor Dalton begins. “A one-to-one correspondence in which nothing is wasted. I could do the procedure myself. Right here, right now. If you would only let me.”
Big Pharmakos, on a Conservative tear after an onstage meltdown stalled his rise to the top of comedy, holds the mantle for the opposition: “Fuck them for not wanting to be born! I didn’t want to be born either, but here I am! Right?! Aren’t we all here??”
Each voice magnifies the other until there comes the sound of winged monkeys, paws tearing up the pavement.
The UNHOLY FAMILY reality crew is all around us, filming everything.
It’s not far to an impasse.
This impasse is broken in the form of Blanche Brine Daly, a pilgrim dragging a tank on a cart.
“My tank,” she begins, with no sequiter, as the crowd-noise sinks beneath that of her voice, “is for those fetuses that are not yet ready to be born, or those mothers that are not yet ready to bear them. The interior conditions mimic the life-sustaining conditions of the womb, but not the life-developing conditions, so that the fetus can survive in here as it is, without being transformed against its will — or its mother’s — into a baby.”
A pause while we look her and it over.
“So there is no net loss of life here. Nor any net gain. No, sirs. I offer only the chance to … arrest development until the time is right. Until solid groundwork can be laid.”
She takes the tank off the cart and settles it onto the ground. “It’s an open-air device,” she begins. “As fine a piece of kit as you’re likely to find anyplace outside of Chicago, where far finer are to be found, but if anyone here were the Chicago-type they wouldn’t be here today … am I right?”
Her question sounds genuine, not rhetorical, but elicits only murmurs.
“Does anyone have an extension cord?” she then asks, and it’s a long time before any of us realizes she’s talking to us. When we do, we have to ask her to repeat the question, which she does, but it turns out that none of us has one, so we all have to entertain ourselves while she goes to the hardware store.
UNHOLY FAMILY shoots B-reel, eats Cliff Bars.
She returns with the extension cord and plugs the tank in, bringing its brine to life.
“Well, step right up, ladies. Don’t be shy,” she says, after we’ve all stood dumbfounded for as long as she’ll let us. “Any woman will do.”
Finally, a woman none of us knows steps forward, waits beside the tank while Blanche looks her over.
“Any pregnant woman,” Blanche clarifies.
The woman pauses, like she’s trying to remember what she’d meant to say, then tries, “I could get pregnant.”
Blanche looks her over again, shakes her head. “No time for that now. This is a live demonstration.”
Looking cornered, the woman faints on the concrete and another woman, fantastically pregnant, steps forward.
Blanche looks satisfied.
She blindfolds this woman, spins her three times, and proceeds to extract the fetus using nothing but her thumb and index finger, each of which has been outfitted with an extra joint in the middle.
The woman faints on top of the other on the concrete. Now two non-pregnant women are collapsed in a pile for different reasons.
The fetus, meanwhile, is already in the tank, where it hovers a few moments before settling into a sediment on the bottom, stirring it up, clouding our view.
“It is planted in a sediment which will not permit it to grow,” Blanche informs us, removing her extra finger joints, wiping them on a handkerchief, and putting them back in place. “When the mother is ready, be that days or years from now, the fetus will be re-implanted and carried to term, as if there’d been no interruption at all.”
UNHOLY FAMILY elides the many iterations of the process that come next, picking back up when the tank is full of fetuses, ranging from a few weeks to nearly 9 months of age. The tank is so full that some of its brine has bubbled over the edges, frothing on the concrete below, eating into it.
All the mothers are in a giant heap nearby, at the edge of the liquid’s reach, breathing as one.
“Now,” asks Blanche, pointing, “I presume that is a Hotel over there?”
LIKE SO, she becomes part of Dodge City for the time being, in a Room just down the hall from mine.
When UNHOLY FAMILY asks her what happens now, all she says is, “I’ve sent for my husband from Chicago. He should be here any day.”
The mothers continue to lie beside the tank, unmoving, covered in the shadows of their fetuses.
Big Pharmakos fashions a rough wooden paddle and takes it upon himself to stir the tank, but when the UNHOLY FAMILY crew asks him to “stop tampering with the evidence,” he proves surprisingly compliant, returning to the Hotel lobby to rehearse the comedy routine he melted down during.
Life stays normal for longer than feels normal.
UNHOLY FAMILY puts a “Do Not Guard” sign around the tank, to ensure that nothing comes between it and whatever’s going to happen.
I perch in my window with sugar packets from the lobby and look out at the wind rippling the brine, sometimes bringing the fetuses’ half-formed faces to the surface. I name the ones with defined features and try to keep track of them until they sink back under.
After a week, Blanche reports that her husband arrived several days ago and that “we’ve been living in marital bliss ever since,” but the UNHOLY FAMILY crew is unable to find any evidence of him.
In between updates, rumors circulate that a marauder is loose in the surrounding woods, picking off chickens and making wicker fetishes, but we assume these are mostly intended to dilute our attention and try not to let them.
Which is a shame, because if we’d been more attuned to this side of the story, some of us might have seen the thing stealing in from the woods last night, covered in pine needles and chicken blood, and climbing into the tank, sloshing more brine over the edge, partially dissolving the dormant mothers.
When we wake up and head down to the square, we see something slipping around with the fetuses, swirling them together, seeping into their thin shells, squeezing sound from those of them that have lungs.
The whole tank has a gamey, seedy reek.
Blanche is there too, in her bathrobe, taking it all in without reacting.
After this turmoil peaks, there comes a calm.
The fetuses start to grow, whether they’re 3-week-specks or 8-month-behemoths. They swell up, reaching and surpassing the size of babies, taking on shapes that borrow liberally from the human template without conforming to it.
Their bodies turn thick and spongy, their faces pressed up against the tank as they grow too big for it. I can almost taste their sour, porous dough.
Soon, all the brine has been forced out of the tank and onto the mothers, whose bodies are mostly dissolved, and the fetuses are huge creatures standing mushed together inside the glass, groaning, trying to chew through the glass with lips that contain only more lips.
Many of them look vegetal, with cabbage-like flaps and hair like turnips.
The marauder is nowhere to be seen: its body has been absorbed, spent in the process of making them what they now are.
In this moment, we forget that they once had human fathers — many of whom are standing right here, in the crowd — and accept that whatever came into the tank last night is their father now.
“It’s as if,” says Dalton, all too happy to resume his position of metaphysical authority, “they were nothing but unfertilized eggs all this time, and now, at last, after months in the incubator, some sperm has come to fertilize them. Think about the implications … imagine that you and I, right now, are likewise unfertilized, waiting for our father to find us and make us into what we will one day be … and all along we’ve thought of ourselves as full creatures already.”
He goes on, but Blanche interrupts him: “Excuse me, folks, but does anyone have a hammer? I really ought to let these fellows out before they swell through the glass.”
Again, no one answers, and again she goes to hardware store to buy one, or take one, since the hardware store owner is out here with us.
After she’s smashed the tank, we watch as the doughy creatures stomp out, some on feet and some not, grinding the bones of their mothers into the pavement and scraping the remnants of their father’s ejaculate from their legs and torsos.
They reach the edge of the square and wait, watching us, to see what we do.
UNHOLY FAMILY swarms around Blanche.
The reporter puts the mic in her face: “So, before we try to interview these … things, tell us what we all want to know: is the marauder that came in from the woods last night your husband? It is, isn’t it? Just admit it! It’s their father and you’re their mother, right? Right??”
Then — I’m up in my Room watching this now — the screen fades to black on a banner that reads: “FIND OUT NEXT TIME ON UNHOLY FAMILY, DODGE CITY’S LONGEST-RUNNING REALITY SHOW.”