Of Humankind

Prose

On a dirt street, in a one-room shack with a rain-tempered roof, lived a woman who sold sex to the workers of her district, and she did this because of all the ways one made money in the hard-mouthed world, this was the easiest for her. She possessed the quality of being able to split her mind in two, and as one self was gasping with pleasure feigned or, rarely, real, the other was bending its gaze out the shack’s narrow window and around two or three corners to a tall tree where, she could see, a single wreath of fire-colored marigolds hung on a high branch thirty feet or more above the ground, as if around the neck of a child-god enshrined for the first time. And not far from that, she saw that another young tree which had been damaged and made leafless by a storm months back had sprouted new, pale leaves like feathers on their stalks, each finger playing the breeze as a jazz pianist might. And so it went, on nights like this when the streets had gone quiet, in this part of town where no street lights illuminated passers-by from above, and in fact after night fell the passers-by had nothing but the sound of crickets to delineate the boundary of the street from the grassy ditch made of murk and trash and sewage that ran alongside it, where little night creatures sung their private joys in the dewy dark, but humans, when they fell in, sometimes never recovered. Nature makes its own infrastructure, the urban planners of the alleyways and tea stall shit-shooters liked to say, while here and there in a hut topped by corrugated tin, a man thrust into and out of the body of a woman, and muttered to himself a steady stream of filthy invective meant not for her but for the mythical woman he imagined lay beneath him and thus of course for himself.

*

One night there walked a she-wolf who had come into the city following the thread of a scent that wound its way through the cricket-edged lanes the moon had again omitted from its gaze, and which thus fell under pitch blackness. In the dark she went, steadily through the dust-lanes until the scent was joined by a sound: it was the sound of a woman groaning with pleasure, and the she-wolf followed it until she reached the wooden door of a shanty which, had it been daylight, would have been painted a faded red and flanked by two pots made from yellow canola oil containers with their tops cut off, in which two marigolds flush with the radiance of their blooms grew. It was this the she-wolf had smelled, and not some other odor—dirty-minded reader whose thoughts turn so instinctually to a different thing, it is you the man speaks to—and the she-wolf rested her wet nose against the door dark as night, its weathered texture turned rough as the rasp of an animal’s tongue. She waited until silence reclaimed the room on the other side of the door and she heard the sound of cash being counted, then pressed into a palm. Then the door opened and the she-wolf sprang upon the man and devoured him though his post-coital bliss had barely begun to recede. It was, on the whole, not a bad moment to die.

*

In several days his boarding house room with its hunchback television, which still required the adjustment of its rabbit-eared antenna each day, and single outlet where he had charged his mobile phone while the television lay unplugged, and stack of instant noodles and holey shirts folded in a small wooden crate he’d turned on its side, would announce its emptiness to the matron who collected his rent each week, and soon the scrapbuyers with their unvirtuous wheelbarrows would arrive. Meanwhile, the she-wolf licked her lips clean of the man and entered the small room where the woman stood at a basin washing, and the she-wolf spoke to her. My sister, she said, and the woman looked up in surprise. The spirit of her right side, which was still out wandering, and the spirit of her left side which had remained behind to make the sounds a man demanded, awoke from their reveries and were instantly rejoined. This city does not agree with you, the she-wolf told the woman, and the woman nodded because she already knew it was true. Come with me to live how you have wished, said the she-wolf, and the woman agreed. She gathered the things she thought she might need: a bone-handled knife with an iron blade, her shawl and shirts, the scroll as thick as the trunk of a tree on which she wrote her diary, which began sapling-slender when she first learned to write at the age of five, and she wrapped them all up in a piece of cloth and slung it over her back like a satchel, then threw her leg over the broad back of the she-wolf.

*

Through the cricket-edged lanes they went, past the wyes that opened onto broader streets lit by electric lamps where air-conditioned buses flung themselves past the capitol building, and past the clusters of domestic servants who had scrubbed windows and floors and ruddied the pale cheeks of their employers’ children each day, and now stood waiting for shared jitneys to carry them home. The city changed its shape as they went through dusty lanes and down glittering avenues, then out into the suburbs with their clean-angled edifices and jaunty red tile roofs. And as they went, from between the woman’s legs leaked what the man had left behind, his remaining legacy. Out from the city they rode, the she-wolf with the steady loping stride of an animal who knows no master, and as they went a light rain began to fall. It fell on the cane fields, burnt that week, where flecks of ash still swirled in the sky like the black bodies of carrion-eaters, freckling the exposed skin of workers swinging their scythes in labor. It fell on the gullies of frogs singing the songs of their nightly festivals, and on the narrow-nosed chimneys of brick kilns billowing smoke up into the clouds of an overcast sky in one of the commonest forms of miscegenation, wholly unknown to humankind. Onto the woman the rain fell, and onto the back of the she-wolf, where it mixed with the man’s semen and was fertilized, so that a row of small eggs grew in a fold of the she-wolf’s ruff and clung there like a line of dog ticks might. The night went on and the sky cleared, and the moon ran its milky gaze over the landscape further from the city where man’s dominion was troubled by animals that carried off livestock and babies alike, and by boulders the plowmen avoided. Then they left the road, then left paths trod by the feet of men or their domesticated subjects. They climbed the boulder-strewn mountains where finally no men came to tap rubber trees into the opened cup of a coconut shell, nor cut down aquilaria in search of the ammoniac scent of agarwood resin within. Finally they came to a crevice in the face of sheer stone which no path seemed to lead to or away from, and the woman dismounted from the she-wolf and one by one they crept into the cave that hid on the other side of the crevice.

*

Inside there was softness and fire, the kind of home a human could take comfort in, cured meat hanging from the ceiling and woolen rugs carpeting the packed earth. From a stack of bowls by the fire the she-wolf took up a large wooden one and placed it on the ground. She shook free from her neck the cluster of eggs, which had grown by then to the size and color of avocados, and put the bowl near the fire, covered with a coarse blanket like bread dough that had been left to rise in the warmest part of the room, and the wolf fed the woman supper, then they curled together on the carpets and covered themselves with sheepskins and slept. In the morning they were awakened by the calls of their children, new hatchlings emerged from the eggs already with the teeth of carnivores and no particular gender: they had grown in the night to the size of toddlers, and had taken their genitals from their bodies and now threw them between one another in a game of keep-away and catch combined. Every so often one stopped to reattach whichever genitals they held loosely at that moment, as one holds such things, and if the genitals were male ones, that child fell upon another with female genitals and mounted it savagely, biting the back of its neck so that it couldn’t twist free, until abruptly and for no particular reason it might stop and begin scratching beneath its armpit with its own foot, and the child who had been released from brief captivity would remove its female genitals and shake them clean in irritation or exasperation as if shaking dried grass or dampness from a cloth, then dash again into the fray to steal the better genitals of another child. What are these creatures we have made, the woman asked the she-wolf. They are humankind in its earliest form, the she-wolf told her; it is animalkind’s first mistake, which we must relive each month so we never forget what sets us apart from man.

*

By the end of breakfast the children had matured and stank of teenagehood, sweating its ripe scent from beneath their arms and between their legs, and their savagery did not recede. The children gathered around the she-wolf, and she suckled them until they were fat around the middle and made drowsy with milk, and one by one they fell asleep clutching their genitals possessively in their hands, and those with genitals attached to their bodies, those genitals grew enflamed with animal lust even as they slept. The woman saw then what her responsibility was, and she took from her bundle the iron knife and used it to cut the throat of each child lying insensate in its milk-stupor on the floor of the cave, and the she-wolf followed behind her, lapping up the blood that surged from their necks and pooled in the hollows of their bodies. Then together they rolled back the rugs, and with her knife, the woman slit each child’s belly, then cut down and around the anus as one does when slaughtering any animal, taking care to avoid puncturing the intestines and contaminating the meat, and carefully pulled free each one’s organs and stomach and guts to coil in a large tub. She cut off their hands and feet and heads and buried this refuse in a pit dug into the floor of the cave, and all day they worked as iridescent green flies gathered to wash their tiny limbs at offal’s altar. By nightfall they had salted each body, and bound it, and raised it to hang from hooks on the ceiling to cure, and by then the forest around them was loud with the sounds of animals singing their symphony. The two went forth from the cave to bathe in the creek that ran in front of it, to wash the ferric scent of meat from their forelimbs, and they sat together as sisters on a ridge and watched for clouds to cleave from one another and the rabbit-faced moon, which lay beyond the clouds’ separated selves, to appear. Then they began to howl.