by Hephaestion Christopoulos
You don’t get to choose where you’ll live. You don’t get to choose who you’ll share the world with. You don’t even get to choose whether you’ll come into this world. Why then, since you haven’t chosen it, should you accept its rules?
I have no answer to that. I think about it often since we came here — especially since the whole affair with Thalia. After all, there’s not that much to do in this white wasteland. You curl up in front of a fire, hold your knees tight, and think. The words we exchange are sparse, only when it is necessary. The things we hide inside, they are not to be shared.
But if it wasn’t our choice to come into this world, it was our choice to board the Amerigo. And, with this decision, we accepted the rules; we acquiesced. How to coexist in the ship, how to treat each other. And who would board it.
We knew the rules and we broke them. I don’t regret it, not even now. I’d do it again if I had the chance. I’d do it a thousand times for the chance to live in a world that has shaken off the old burdens and is starting all over again. Sure, it was not the first time something like this was happening and, truth is, we had absolutely no idea how the previous attempts turned out. We were certain, however, that this time we’d get everything right. So many centuries of human history; we must have learned something.
At first, it struck me as odd that I was not the only one, but then I thought about it a bit more thoroughly: people like us had an even stronger motive to join the mission. The same people that were not allowed to take part.
Forging an identity card was easy; fooling the psychological tests was the hard part. Anyway, some of us, I don’t know how, I don’t know why, made it. Somewhere along the way, they got onto us. Someone told me our brain activity in cryosleep was being monitored. I don’t know if it’s true. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes, the effort is enough to give you courage to draw a few more breaths.
So we found ourselves in this place. The outcasts, those beyond repair. The damaged ones. The egg shells in the omelette, as someone suggested that we call ourselves when we first got here. (No one thought it funny then. I sometimes think about it now and laugh.) Almost two hundred souls, most of us women. That’s to be expected: this world — or maybe that world, now — is not fair. That’s what we were striving to fix, anyway.
My stepfather used to rape me every day since I was five years old, up until I turned twelve, when they arrested him. Chetana, sitting next to me at this very moment, was the victim of a ten-man assault in the street when she was fourteen. Judith, her partner lately, spent half her childhood and adolescence locked in a lightless basement. She killed her parents setting the house on fire on her eighteenth birthday.
There was no place for us in the new world. Heaven is inhabited by angels — unsullied, unsexed, untouched; white, gleaming faces, scarless, seamless; untainted souls, just like mother’s milk. The wounds we carried could only fester. And, sometimes, if the toe goes rotten, you must amputate the whole leg or die.
They accused them of social Darwinism. Back then, I agreed. What right did they have to exclude me because of something that’s none of my fault? Now that we found ourselves in this place, I realize they had no choice. Not that I believe any more that the well-bred settlers with their minds in the right place will do much better. I do understand, though, that they had to take precautions.
There’s only one thing I find it difficult to forgive although I’m not sure they had another way. The alternative was to feed us to the void.
They didn’t tell us the planet was going through an ice age.
The knife is blue. But as long as it’s blue, you don’t know that it’s a knife yet. The blade folds into the hilt, and all you see is an oblong thing made of polymer with curves for the fingers. But then you open it, and the blade jerks out with an ominous click, and the shiny metal reflects the snow and the weak sunlight, and maybe then the correct thing to say is that the knife is white.
The knife is useful. It’s not merely used for cutting — you can dig in the snow with it, clear the rocks from the cave floor, open the tins, stick it in the food and bring it to your mouth. It’s hard to get along without the knife.
The knife talks to me sometimes. I mean, not with a human voice, but there are times I find it open, and I can’t remember when that happened, and I look at it and see my eyes reflected on the blade, and then I realize I’m wondering if, now that my provisions are almost over, it’s time to stick it in the throat of some animal I might bump into or in mine and be over with it once and for all.
And sometimes, I find myself caressing the knife and trying the edge on the skin of my palm, but then I sense a shifting inside me (could it be it? Is it too early yet? I don’t know), and then something gets to , and I feel a choking in my throat, and I click the knife shut and shove it in my pocket and don my gloves — the blood has already frozen solid on the slash — and I stomp my feet to get them warm and lift my hood and step out to see if there really are any animals in this godforsaken place.
But I don’t get to take more than two steps, and I drop on my knees and start sobbing because something else wakes up inside me and whispers in my ear, and I wonder what happened and how I ended up here, talking to a knife.
We gave it no name. We won’t be here for long anyway. We heard many suggestions, but I believe we made the right decision. There’s nothing worth naming here. A white wilderness, unvaried, with nothing changing wherever you might cast your gaze, the odd distant tree here and there, with its black leaves peeping out from under the snow like a shard of metal wedged in the eye’s white. And mountains all around, broken teeth hiding the milky sky, and, only if you turn around and look to where the sun sets, you might see the slight curve of the horizon.
They did take care of us, though, I can’t deny that: clothes, food — so much food it’ll be a long time till we finally have to hunt — weapons, collapsible buildings — I had never seen anything like that before; a bunch of boxes, a mere five meters by five, which cracked like eggs once they hit the ground, and houses, warehouses, and silos emerged from inside. How many of us had been in there — a hundred? a hundred and fifty thousand? I suppose that supplying a couple of hundred souls was no big deal, and they got a chance to ease their conscience.
So we got ourselves a chance at utopia — a broken sort of utopia, torn apart, which wakes up from nightmares in the middle of the night and screams at the walls, which drags its steps during the day and cranes its neck to look around corners, and flinches with every bang and every leaf rustling behind its back. I was one of those who helped set up its rules — the same rules I now wonder whether we have any moral obligation whatsoever to conform to. They were not many: we abolished property and money; administration would be carried out by a ten-member council we’d elect every six hundred days; we established a court with judges that would be determined by draw. We didn’t write any laws. It was just a few of us, there was no need; we’d work things out — the court would decide according to its best judgement on every separate occasion. We only had to make two things clear — two things we deemed necessary at the time:
The first one: murder is strictly prohibited. That’s self-evident, one might say. Respect for life is the bone and marrow of every society. I’m not sure any more. I even doubt that sometimes.
The other thing was Chetana’s proposal. Truth is, I didn’t expect a unanimous acceptance. I didn’t expect it to be accepted at all. Still, not only was it not voted against, but, when we announced it to the others, not a single voice was raised in protest. The thought was simple: we had all forgotten — every one of us — how to love. Perhaps, once upon a time, when we were still babies, we had hugged an animal, a toy even, another child, our parents, we had rubbed our skin against theirs, and in our baby minds we’d sensed heat, light, the color red, and we had wished for it to never end. But not any more. Now, all we could expect from another’s touch was pain, all we had to give was violence. It was not our fault; that’s what we had been taught.
Chetana painted a vivid picture of the abused children of abused children and a sick community that feeds on fear and violence and suspicion. We were not made for utopias — that was the reason we were here, anyway. I don’t know if in a population of one or two hundred thousand it would really matter — a pinch of salt is not enough to turn a whole lake into a sea — but all we had here was a spoonful of water, and every drop was contaminated. We have no right, she said.
We would not have any children.
So be it. We were all young still, less than thirty years old on the day we boarded the ship. We had another fifty or sixty years to dream as many nightmares as we found fitting. And then, perhaps centuries later, maybe someone would dig up our frozen bodies, find what was left of our little lives, scratch their head (if they had one), and wonder who those people who had passed through here were and why they had vanished like that.
I wonder how much time I’ve got left. I don’t know; days are shorter here than what I was accustomed to, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s still night or if the sun is up.
I killed a deer today. They’re not really deer, I call them that. They’re tall, with wide eyes, and have the color of the trees. With their long necks, they reach the thorny leaves and chomp them as if they are the most tender salad. I tried them myself once, and the roof of my mouth got all bloody.
Now that I’ve got the deer, though, I have no need to eat leaves. I dig a hole in the snow, throw the carcass in and cover it up. It’ll stay fresh for long this way, it can’t go rancid in this cold.
At first, having meat on my person scared me. I used to sleep with one eye open, clutching the knife between my fingers. I dropped my guard after a while. I now believe that there are no carnivores in this world. Maybe this explains how easy it was to get close to the deer. It didn’t try to run away; it didn’t attack me; it just looked at me with a blank expression in its eyes and went on looking as I slit its throat.
I eat more now. I can still move around easily for the time being, but I don’t know what’s going to happen in the near future. That’s why, I have come here these days and roam the forest — if you can call it that: just a handful of trees packed tight against each other. They must not be more than a hundred altogether. The deer flock here to feed. I killed one today, I will lurk for one or two more tomorrow — we’ll see. I don’t know how many I’m going to need and, to be frank, I feel sorry for them and don’t want to start killing them thoughtlessly, but I have to provide for the next few months.
And afterwards? Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen afterwards; I can’t think as far as that.
I wonder if spring exists in this place. For as long as I’ve been here, nothing seems to change, but that can’t be. If the weather doesn’t get a tad warmer, for the snow to melt and the bushes and the grass to grow, nothing can survive here — can it?
As soon as I’m finished eating and have put the rest of the meat away, I walk back to the cave and sit at its mouth while there’s still light. I lean against the rock and take off my boots. The skin on the sole of my foot is hardened. It reminds me of rubber. I jab it with the knife’s point and I feel nothing.
A nail is broken, jutting out like a splinter of wood wedged in my big toe. I try to cut the protruding part with my knife. The blade has gone murky. I look at myself mirrored inside it, and I see nothing but a pale blur against the white. I can’t remember what I look like any more.
The frozen surface touches my wrist, the blemished metal caressing it like a loving mother. I whisper a couple of words, close it, and hold it tight against my chest. I love you, I tell it.
Maybe it’s just a rehearsal for the future. Maybe I really mean it — this blade is my life and my death. I do hope, though, that soon enough, I will have someone to talk to, and there’ll be no need to confess my sins to the blade.
The doctor was the one who found out Thalia was pregnant. She looked calmly at her, silently, and asked her to follow her. She presented her to the heads of the council — Chetana and me.
We sat her on a chair and waited for her to speak. She said nothing. I went close, stood over her, touched her cheek with my fingers — soft skin, rosy, a little crumpled, as if the clay never congealed.
What do you plan to do? I asked her.
She kept looking at me, expressionless, lips tightened, eyes moist, still silent, so silent I caught myself wondering whether she might have stopped breathing.
She left us no choice but to send her to court. Naturally, it was the first time it was summoned. When we had established it, we all tacitly held on to the hope we’d never have to use it. And now, way too soon, we had to draw lots for judges.
Ododo would be presiding. A likable girl — I had chatted with her once or twice in the past. She used to be, I think, a street cleaner in Lagos. This one had been forced when she was eleven to marry a thirty-five-year-old man whose sole entertainment was to rape and abuse her — physically and mentally — when he got home every night. (Each time we were assigned office or we were called upon to make some important decision on behalf of the community, we were obliged to state what had brought us here. We hoped that this would remind us what we were not supposed to do with the power we were granted.)
Who is the father? she asked her. But she just sat there with her gaze fixed on her hands and her thumbs orbiting each other as if what was taking place had nothing to do with her; as if it was something happening somewhere far away, back on Earth perhaps; as if her very life did not depend on what she’d say.
It was decided to send her into exile. Ododo made a beautiful speech that made us all emotional. She spoke about her homeland and all she’d been through, about what children and adolescents all around the world had to suffer, and about how we had tried ourselves and had found us guilty towards the next generations in advance.
We gave her clothes, a knife, a sleeping bag, some butane containers, a pan, and as much food as she could carry on her back. We knew it, as we watched her receding in the distance, that we were sending her to her death, but we consoled ourselves claiming we were saving not one but a whole lot of unhappy souls from a life like ours. To live in a society means you have to abide by its rules, doesn’t it? You don’t get to choose who you’ll live with, but there must be limits in liberty so that liberty itself is not threatened.
At least that’s what I used to say back then.
We naturally looked everywhere for the father. It shouldn’t have been hard to trace him; a mere sixty one men among us, and fifteen of them homosexuals. Still, nobody took that one step forward.
I don’t know what would have happened if we’d found him; I don’t know if the court’s ruling would be different, or if he might have managed to convince her to get rid of the baby. On the other hand, maybe nothing would have changed. But still, he could at least assume the responsibility and go into exile with her so that she’d have someone on her side while she felt her blood freeze solid in her veins and her tears turn to crystal on her eyelids.
On the other hand, it might just be that I have too high expectations from people like us.
I found a bush yesterday. I can’t tell if this means spring has come, for the snow doesn’t seem to be getting any less, but it held some dark blue fruit shaped somewhat like stars, and I picked one and put it in my mouth. It was tart, and I felt as if someone was piercing my tongue with a hundred little pins, but, as I chewed, it got sweet and sour, and its scent reminded me of the wine grapes we used to press with my grandfather when I was small, and I sat there with the juice trickling down my chin and cried for a good long while.
Today, I pass by the bush without paying it any attention. I’m headed towards where I have buried the deer — I’ve stuck a branch in the ground to mark the spot — and I start digging with the knife. I think that I’ve only got one gas container left, and I will soon have to find another way to light a fire. The meat freezes in there, gets icier than Chetana’s heart, and, even if I wanted to eat it raw, I cannot without warming it up first.
I’m hunched over the pit I’ve dug, and I’m shoving my hands inside to take out a piece, when, in the fringes of my vision, I think I see the snow swelling and deflating again just like breathing. I look up and then I feel it: it starts in my knees, from where they touch the ground, and climbs upwards, spreads up to my fingertips and my head just like the sunlight used to sprawl on the concrete at daybreak when Grandpa took me fishing at the docks.
I thought I couldn’t get any colder. Still, I feel pain in the roots of my hair, the fluid freezing in my eyes, my teeth about to break, and my legs are just two pieces of wood holding me upright.
The snow starts breathing everywhere around me and circles me, and then they stand up and look at me, and I understand.
I quietly let the knife fall to the ground and put my hands up and show them my empty palms. The breaths in the snow stand aside and something makes its way between them and comes and stands in front of me and — I think — sniffs at me.
And even with it right there, almost touching me, it’s impossible to describe it. I’m not even sure it’s got eyes. Sometimes, I think they’re right before me, staring at me, and, in the very next moment, I see nothing but the snow’s vastness and only a swell on its surface suggesting there’s something that wasn’t there before. And this cold, ineffable cold, so cold I feel my lungs about to burst and my heart about to stop.
Till I sense something touching my belly, and it starts there and spreads through my whole body and warms me up, and I can move my legs again, and my eyes can turn around in their sockets, and I’m certain I see the snow melting and steaming where it stands.
From sunrise to sunset it’s ten hours and fourteen to twenty-two minutes — this hardly changes as the months go by. The year is supposed to last two hundred and ninety eight days — at least that’s what they told us when they left us. We decided, however, not to introduce any other form of calendar — just count the days we’ve been here. The day we arrived would be the first. Weeks, months, we don’t have that kind of stuff — hardly anything varies throughout the year, anyway.
We had seen four hundred and sixty four sunups since we sent Thalia into exile — day number seven hundred and eighty one in the official calendar. We used to have guards around the camp’s perimeter at first, but we repealed them afterwards. Nothing seemed to pose a threat in this wilderness, and the shifts had started feeling like a bad joke. But we didn’t need any guards to set off the alarm; the spectacle alone was enough. A woman straight out of the human race’s most forgotten past — face scorched by the sun’s reflection on the snow, dark circles around red eyes, clumps of matted hair like thick rope sticking out from under the black fleeces she had draped over her clothes — and in her hands, fast asleep, something tiny and white, wrapped in pelts.
Maybe we should have ordered her killed as soon as she set foot on the camp — she was an exile, anyway, she wasn’t allowed to return. The end result would be the same and the nightmares would be less. But we couldn’t have known then. And I was not used to giving orders — especially when those orders involved someone’s execution.
I know now that my time has come. No one has ever told me what that moment is like, but you can sense stuff like that. It’s a weird feeling when the time comes for something you have been carrying inside you all that time to leave your body — especially when that something comes out moist and warm and crying and swinging its tiny fists. I get sad when I think about it; that I’ll be left void and alone and empty again.
I’m scared, it’s true, and I’d really like someone to be here and hold my hand, but all that is just remnants from my old life. They won’t leave me alone and I know it. They have already gathered outside the cave, murmuring with those screechy little voices of theirs; twenty-three little voices buzzing, a swarm of bees covering the entrance like a soft, transparent curtain keeping the wind away.
That’s the only sound I have ever heard them make. I’m not exactly sure what it means, but they always do it on emotionally charged moments — be it birth or death, or when they meet members of the tribe they have not seen for a long time. Other than that, their tongue is a mere five or six words altogether: cold for fear, that bone-piercing frost that turns marrow into crystal; warmth for love, tender, fond, affectionate; a soft coolness like morning dew on your arms for hunger. I suppose they also have words for anger and hate, but I have never felt them, and I don’t think I will. I picture them as frost that can split you in two or as a hellish heat that makes your skin blister. So few things to say and yet so many. If only we had those five words at our disposal and no more, the world would be a better place.
I lie on the furs I’ve covered the cave floor with and breathe deeply. Something’s happening inside me. I can feel it. I’m in pain, and I’m cold, and I’m dizzy, and I want to puke at the same time, and I’m scared, and I want everything to stop, but then I hear the buzz get louder, and the warmth gets hold of my fingers and toes, climbs up my arms and legs, closes around my heart, and puddles in my belly. I almost feel it inside me, its happy purr, reaching out with its tiny arms, opening its mouth to suck the sweet warmth.
And when that time finally comes, I simply close my eyes, and I swear I feel my body leave the ground like a fleck of dust floating away from the fire. It slides softly out of me and I realize I’ve felt no pain, and I stretch out my arms, and Ι clasp it and it really is warm and moist, and it’s steaming like a spring morning.
The buzz stops. But the warmth keeps wrapping me in, embracing me even tighter, and I lean back, and, just before I fall asleep, I decide that we actually don’t even need five words if only we could tell each other that one word — that word we had forgotten and had to learn all over again.
This time no one had to bring her to us by force. She came and stood before me on her own and looked up into my eyes. I felt a chill upon meeting her gaze but not the chill the wind and the snow were bringing in; it was a cold that nested inside me and wrapped itself around my bones.
I felt it again later when they brought her in the council room. The convector right in the middle could keep the temperature at levels tolerated by the human body, but once she came in, I felt as if the heat was standing right in front of me, struggling to touch me, but its arms couldn’t reach me as if someone had nailed it right there on the ground. I turned around and saw Chetana swallowing a shiver.
At first, I had decided that it was audacity and indifference, that thing in her eyes’ sparkle, but now that I had the chance to get a better look at her, I realized I was wrong; this was fear burning in there. I wondered why, since she was so worried about what we could do to her, she had risked coming to see us.
Congratulations on the baby, Chetana said. I wish it luck.
I didn’t pay any attention then; maybe I even thought her words a mere formality, but, now, I sometimes recall the scene, and I cannot ignore the way the last syllables folded and broke.
You know, however, we cannot have it here, she was quick to add.
I expected her to speak this time. She had come here risking getting killed. She must have something important to tell us. Still, she just waved us closer, lifted the corner of the pelt covering the creature in her arms, and I immediately felt a soft caress on my limbs, my flesh loosening in the warmth, and I barely managed to turn the other way so that Chetana wouldn’t see my tears.
The knife is cold. The knife has gone dull. The knife is murky and black, and it’s not talking to me any more.
I’m alone in here. They took the baby. I don’t know what they did with it. I don’t expect it to still be alive. In the dark, I try to remember what heat is like, but there’s none left inside me. The only thing I know is cold and frost, and sometimes I lie on the ground and let it flood me and think that, if I set it free, maybe in a few moments I’ll stop feeling.
They never asked me why I came back. I’m not even sure I myself know the answer anymore. I realized something, though: humans learn to live with their misery, and they won’t let you take it from them that easily. Maybe they find it hard to change their mask. If they have been taught to be a victim, that’s the only role that makes them feel safe. Light hurts when you get out after years in the dark.
I just hope that, when it’s all over, they’ll discard me somewhere far away from here, close to the forest so that they might find me and mourn me with their tiny voices. And the winter might get a bit colder for a few days.
The knife is not talking to me. The knife is not blue. The knife is useless. The knife is but death now.
As the new presiding judge announces Thalia’s sentence, I realize why no settling expedition will ever achieve its goal. It’s true that rules are mandatory to protect liberty as it is also true that their very implementation constitutes a violation of liberty. Perhaps we should grasp this fact and come to terms with it — perhaps all we can dream of, after all, is an arrangement where liberty is subject to certain restrictions. But who is capable of deciding what those restrictions will be?
I have no doubt whatsoever that, when Chetana suggested that we forbid childbearing, she had the purest of intentions. As I have no doubt that, when they execute Thalia and her baby, they’ll be having nightmares for years to come — still, they will console themselves in the belief that all that was done for the sake of common good.
As for me, I don’t know. Sometimes, I think I should hitch myself up, get a bundle of food, and go out into the wilderness to look for the sole form of actual liberty one can have in this world. And other times, I convince myself it would be best if I just pretend all that never happened and stay here where at least I can find a hand to hold me when I feel my back bend and my knees fold.
I went and visited her the other day to apologize for doing nothing to defend her. She asked me if the baby was alive and gave me the knife she had in her pocket. She told me that when I heard it talk to me I’d be ready to understand.
The courtroom is empty, and I’m sitting alone on a chair spinning a knife between my fingers, waiting for it to speak to me. Maybe the knife can tell me what to do.
Author’s note: “Lamarck’s Ghost” is a story published in Greek by Kostas Charitos. The present story has nothing to do with it, except that I borrowed the title.
Hephaestion Christopoulos is confused: part engineer, part translator, part aspiring linguist and part hopeless bassist. He also writes. He has published two short story collections in Greek and has participated in several anthologies. His latest book The Whales on the Moon mixes realism with speculative elements and has received positive reviews. His novella A Precambrian Discourse on Filipassianism is forthcoming in 2023 from Raven Canticle Press. He lives in Athens with five women, only three of which are furry. You can find him on Twitter @CompsonsCurse.