Archives for posts with tag: Fetus

ALL FIGURES WE EVENTUALLY COME TO REGARD AS GREAT have an origin story, as they do not, to the best of my knowledge, walk fully formed out of nowhere, even if, in the retrospect of their greatness, they often appear to have.

 

Just before my negotiations with Blut Branson at the peripheries of the Movie set in the Desert reach the point of violence, he takes me aside and tells me his.

 

“Believe it or not,” he begins, immediately inducing me to doubt whatever he plans to say, “I was once a regular guy like you.”

 

“Years before your time, decades really, Dodge City was a lot like it is now. They say nothing lasts forever, but there’s an inertia to towns like this that makes you wonder. In any case, all those years ago, I found myself hanging around here, not doing much of anything. As I say, a lot like you.”

 

I open my mouth to speak up for myself, but he continues before I can.

 

“I had dreams, sure, but I was fairly certain they’d die inside me, unhatched like slowly rotting eggs. I saw no other fate for dreams. Thus, I felt no real guilt about letting mine go soft like those of my forefathers.

 

“But something happened. As I believe is often the case with Great Men like myself, an event outside the purview of my Will provided the impetus that set me on my course. Or, more accurately, the true extent of my Will first manifested from a source outside my body.

 

“A great Melancholy came over Dodge City. Over the course of one summer – this must have been 1972 or ’73, as I remember a copy of Ballard’s Crash making waves among my several literate friends and me – all of our small, private melancholies merged. Through a crack in the dreamspace or perhaps in the literal sky, the idea began to overwhelm us that we were not hovering in separate melancholic spheres, like balloons dispersing above a parade of the living, but rather joined beneath a banner of Universal Melancholy. A Power outside ourselves, we thought, feeling fear and relief merge into a feeling without a name. Of course, I did not yet know that Power was Me.

 

“Soon, by the logic that thought tends inevitably toward action, a physical banner was hung by a crew of volunteers. Stretching across Main Street, it read WE ARE SAD.

 

“Summer wore on, June’s soothing warmth yielding to July’s oppressive heat, and this Universal Melancholy took on a more definite form: as we all sat together in the square, sweltering and trying to gather our thoughts under that banner, we realized what it was: the sadness of parting. The awareness that we would all, one day, have to say goodbye. On this day, whenever it came, we would see one another for the last time. Assuming we all died or drifted apart one by one, these partings would be serial, ongoing, unresolvable. There could never, it seemed to us in those gruesomely hot July and then August afternoons, be an end to our Melancholy. There would, much to the contrary, likely come a period when we would have to part with someone we loved almost daily.

 

“As we returned home each night to twist and shiver in our sheets, we thought, when will the day come after which I will never see my friends again? Has it come already? Was today the day and so my terminal aloneness is now?

 

“Eventually, the not-knowing grew so profound that a new fixation took hold of us, every bit as forcefully as the Melancholy had: as summer gave way to autumn, we thought, with no room for negotiation, Let’s just leave.

 

“Just leave?” I ask, realizing I haven’t gotten a word in this whole time. It’s scary how overpowering Branson’s voice can be: I hadn’t, until just now, even managed to think in my own.

 

Branson nods, snarling slightly at the interruption. “Just leave. We decided that all of us, one day in September, would simply walk out of town, dispersing into the Desert, never to meet again. We wrote a Declaration stating as much, and sealed it in a vault in the Records Room of the Town Hall. Packing nothing, we’d decided to shake hands in the town square and take our leave. And that’d be it, no more fear of the unknown future moment when this leave-taking would have to occur. We’d realized we had no power to stave it off, but we did have the power to determine its location in time, and we’d resolved to use that power to make it happen now.”

 

“So you did?” I’m determined to speak more, for fear that otherwise Branson will entirely erase me from the interaction, nullifying any future chance I might have to assert myself as the Director of the Movie whose crew is frozen just beyond where we’re sitting, like the Movie itself has been paused.

 

“One morning in September, we did exactly what we said we were going to do. We left the town behind, chanting Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye as we marched under the WE ARE SAD banner, never to congregate beneath it again. For a few minutes, we remained visible to one another, but after each walking a mile in our own direction, we’d dispersed to the point where we were alone in the Desert. No one was on the same trajectory as anyone else. The worst had come to pass, and here we still were … or, I should say, here I still was, since the others were well and truly gone.”

 

He pauses here, looking over at me, evincing, if I’m not mistaken, relief at finding himself less alone than he was in the story he’s telling. A rare moment of vulnerability, quickly suppressed.

 

“But that wasn’t the end?”

 

He shakes his head. “It wasn’t even the beginning.”

 

*****

“I WANDERED THAT DESERT for what felt like and may well have been 20 years,” Branson continues, after making me wait so long I fear the silence may be permanent.

 

“Eating snakes and tiny rat-like mammals, drinking from cacti and the occasional standing pond, I wandered and thought, bedding down in caves or under the open sky. For the first 10 years, I thought about what my life had been. I assumed it was going to end in the Desert, so I thought back on what I’d done and seen – basically, nothing. I, like you, had led a wasted life, not even a flash in the pan.

 

“But then, somewhere around year 11, the balance shifted. I realized – in what you call a Moment of Revelation – that I wasn’t going to die out there. Not yet. If I’d survived that long, I figured, I was bound to survive longer. Without my having meant for it to, my life in the Desert had become sustainable. I was still young, I realized; time was still on my side.

 

“So, for the next 10 years, I turned my thoughts to the future. I stopped asking myself Which hole would you like to die in? and started asking, What would you like to do with all the time you have left? It was a curse and a blessing, as they say, to be fraught with a future I hadn’t planned on having to account for.

 

“As the years wore on, I started thinking about Movies. All my memories of my youth and upbringing in Dodge City, and of the great Melancholy that had come over us all, took on a cinematic dimension. I started to think, All of that … all of what happened … what was it all if not a Movie?

 

From here, it was only a short leap to the crucial thought: “And if it was all a Movie, who Directed it if not Me?”

 

 

He pauses again, staring off into the Desert where we’re sitting, which I realize is the same Desert he wandered through all those years ago, coming to the decision that set him on the path whose conclusion he’s by now almost reached. All things that seem far away are actually nearby, I think. Everything’s superimposed. I open my mouth, but he continues before I work up the courage to say it.

 

“So, for the next 10 years, I wandered deeper into the Desert, growing more and more charged with ambition. An ambition I’d previously refused to admit to myself I now admitted freely, proudly even, feeling it swell in my gut as I shouted at the night sky. “Nothing can stop me from becoming what I’ve decided to become, because if anything could, it would have by now,” I shouted.

 

“Like so, in the spring of 1995, I arrived in a town. After all those years of sand and dust, I crossed a line out of nowhere and into somewhere. It seemed at once miraculous and inevitable, like I’d simply reached the point I’d been approaching all along. Like I’d conjured this town through pure force of mind, in my first conscious Act of Direction, but also that the conjuring was no less predetermined than God’s conjuring of the universe.”

 

I clear my throat, this time forcing myself past fear. “And the town you reached was Dodge City?”

 

Branson smiles, eying me like I’m an intelligent 5-year-old. “Well, at first I wasn’t sure. I walked through a town that looked familiar, catching the eyes of people who looked familiar too, though it was hard to tell for sure. I had been so fundamentally changed by my years in the Desert that, even if it was Dodge City, it no longer struck me in the same way.”

 

“What was the difference?”

 

“Well, for one thing, the banner had fallen down. And now I saw potential where before I’d seen only stagnation. All these people, whether they were the old population likewise returned from the Desert or a new population who’d filled the void we left behind, looked at me with reverence, awe. All modesty aside, I could feel myself emitting a mythic charge. They knew they were products of my mind, and thus slaves to my Vision. Alive solely to play the roles I cast them in.

 

“I was the Man Returned. Resurrected. These people looked at me like a man out of Scripture, at last incarnated in Flesh rather than merely in Word, grown wise and courageous enough to take my stand. Here He is … they thought, and I thought, Yes, here I am.

 

“And like so you took control of Dodge City?”

 

Branson smiles again. “I didn’t have to. I was Dodge City, and Dodge City was Me. Everything and everyone there lives by the Grace of Me.”

 

He doesn’t add ‘including you,’ but I can tell he knows it’s what I’m thinking.

 

 

“Those people were mine. Absolutely mine. I began work on my first Movie that day. With an entire town’s worth of free labor, production went fast. Before long, Branson Entertainments was up and running, an enterprise fully coterminous with the Dodge City Film Industry. Soon we had our first Movie in the can, playing on every screen in town. Then our second, then …”

 

“Then the rest was history,” I say, wondering if I’m any more capable of resisting the power of the Great Man before me than those original stunned townsfolk were. And if I’m not, I wonder what’s left … I wonder if maybe I too should disappear into the Desert, ready to die there unless fate intercedes.

 

Maybe what worked for him will work for me.

 

Next time I look up, Branson’s gone, setting up a shot on the Movie set that I realize is now unambiguously his, as it always has been.

HAVING RESOLVED TO TAKE MY STAND on the ground of Blut Branson’s abandoned film set, I gather up my flashlight and the camcorder and memory stick I bought at ULTRA MAX over the weekend and make my way out of my Room and past the Hotel’s front desk, where a man who attempted suicide by poison but was resuscitated after 72 hours is haggling over his bill. “I shouldn’t be charged for that time!” he shouts. “Not full price anyway! I didn’t think I’d ever be in this position, so how can you expect me to have saved for it? I didn’t even bring my wallet. That was the only kindness I showed myself!!”

 

“As a Hotel, our business is to rent you a room, at a fixed rate per day,” replies the implacable concierge. “What you do in there is your business.”

 

The man grows so livid he opens his mouth without producing any sound, and leaves it open. Perhaps, I think, far from thanking a higher power for his miraculous recovery, he’ll simply default to suicide again, here on the spot even, if he has any poison left.

 

I make my way out, wondering if we ever learn from our mistakes.

 

*****

By the time I make it to the Outskirts, it’s late dusk. I turn on my flashlight, sweeping the terrain for any sign of Branson’s set, which the locals often refer to but superstitiously refuse to visit.

 

For a long time I don’t see anything but lean-to’s and shanties, rundown houses and former stores, car bodies without wheels and, twice, piles of dead dogs. For reasons I can’t explain, I have the thought, on both occasions, that these sinister piles are concealing something even more sinister — that the gross mass of rotting dogflesh is more decoy than travesty.

 

I don’t explore this thought beyond filing it away for use in a possible future film.

 

Finally, just at the point where I find myself debating whether to turn back, maybe shoot some footage of those dead dogs and call it a day, a row of torchlights appears on the horizon, making me feel like a medieval exile, seeking succor in the territories. The idea excites me: perhaps, as a Director, this will be my identity. I’ll show up at defunct sets along the road and, under guise of seeking shelter, take charge of the situation.

 

I’ll be somewhere between a Mayor and a Director, I think, imagining a series of abandoned towns lined up and waiting for me in a long row between here and the end of my life. I wonder who will witness these films, or is that the fatal question, the one that will keep me from making them? I file it away, for now, under maybe.

 

*****

I CROSS INTO THE CIRCLE OF LIGHTS, keeping my shoulders back and my chin up so whomever’s here doesn’t pounce, if they’re the type to. When I did karate as a child, that was the takeaway: well-trained people don’t win fights, they avoid them because of how they carry themselves.

 

All around me are plywood facades, half-finished buildings, marquees bearing two or three letters at most. Pickaxes piled in wheelbarrows. Like a miniature Dodge City, built by Blut Branson and his assistants in preparation for a film that never happened.

 

It’s impossible to tell if the disrepair is due to the buildings never having been finished, or if they’ve degraded in the years since preproduction ceased. Either way, it’s a shantytown now.

 

So here I am. In the main square I see nothing but children, and not very strong or well-looking ones at that. They lurch around, falling to their knees every few steps, carrying plastic plates away from a fire where the biggest among them are doling out what looks like squash and rice. The scene reminds me of the charity dinners the Quakers used to set up in front of their meetinghouse on summer Fridays downtown.

 

I approach the fire, figuring I’ll ask for a plate and thereby ingratiate myself by breaking bread, etc.

 

But before I get there, a searing pain in my left ankle brings me down. I find myself sitting on a piece of foam painted to look like a cobblestone, surrounded by tiny peering faces, not so much deformed as unformed. The one that bit me is now chewing a knob of my flesh. The gesture seems self-contained: I do not believe it will be repeated.

 

The others simply open and close their mouths like they think they’re breathing underwater. It takes me a moment to see them for what they are, or were:

 

FETUSES.

 

They look almost like babies but not. Their faces are — I make a note of this phrase in the verbatim section of my brain — too innocent. I immediately consider this as a possible title for my film.

 

As I sit with them, listening to their low, mournful chatter, I remember a story Big Pharmakos told me when we were very drunk one night early in my time in Dodge City:

 

“Not that long ago,” Big Pharmakos began, in the bar of the Hotel, which I did not yet know would be my residence for the next four years at least, “there was a scandal at the abortion clinic. After decades of protests, attacks, even a few murders, the Dodge City Pro-Life League came up with a far more radical approach. Instead of killing the aborters, who, after all, would simply be replaced with others just like them, these Pro-Lifers thought, why not address the problem itself by reanimating the aborted fetuses?”

 

Here, sitting on the foam-cobblestones of the shantytown, I look at my companions — my cast & crew, I think, a bit prematurely perhaps — the living embodiments of Big Pharmakos’ story which, at the time, I’d had more than a little trouble believing.

 

“So, using a technology the nature of which no one understands,” Big Pharmakos continued, “these Pro-Lifers snuck into the trash behind the clinic late one night, after a big haul of fetuses had been deposited, and took them all out, brought them back to a lab somewhere and, well … as far anyone knows, regrew them in tanks, under heat-lamps.”

 

The strange thing about these fetuses, I think, studying them more closely now, is that they were given the chance to gestate for far longer than they would have had they remained in the womb. For them, there never came the point of “now it’s time to make your way out” … they just grew on and on in there, getting bigger without ever crossing the line between fetus and baby … and now here they are, fending for themselves in a world they were perhaps never meant to inhabit.

 

Aware that I’m close to the point of having done enough thinking for one day, I yawn, close my eyes, and watch the rough framework of my film fall into place: If I can only get these fetuses to portray the children they never were and will never be, I think, limping toward the facade of the pretend Hotel in search of a place to sleep, there will be a built-in sense of drama, inherent beyond whatever ability I may or may not have as a Director.

 

You were given a second lease on life, I imagine telling them, from offscreen, as the opening scene unfolds. Are you glad? What use have you made of it so far, and what plans, if any, do you have for the future?

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.”