To the Moment

/ by Nisi Shawl

We are not extinct. There are sixteen of us, and I’m pregnant. I only just found out.

I like to travel. Not by plane, because on long flights I get restless, and the changes in air pressure hurt. My cavities ache terribly with every ascent and landing unless I’ve managed to fill them completely in the last few minutes before boarding. This is difficult to do at almost any airport.

Usually I take a train wherever I want to go. But at times there are oceans in my way. So I am on a ship, a big white cruiser headed south through the Atlantic. Prior to sailing, I glutted myself with blood enough to last the entire voyage, under normal circumstances.

The circumstances are not normal.

The sun is bright, but winter-thin. I’m wearing a coat of ivory wool and large, hexagonal sunglasses with honey-colored frames. They make me think of bees. The wind does what it wants with my long, dark hair; nothing pretty or symmetrical. I don’t care. I’ve been told I resemble Jackie Onassis since 1971. Monkeys always assume I’m beautiful, no matter how I look.

There’s one sitting next to me where I stand on deck. I’ve been considering him casually since we started out from Lisbon two days ago. Balding—lots of testosterone. From England, with skin that lovely rose-flooded milkiness they get in these Northern latitudes. Wife weak with sea-sickness before we left the harbor. Now I’m afraid. I’m pregnant, and this monkey is far, far too tempting. He reaches up with a long, possessive arm and pulls me down beside him. He doesn’t care who sees. He wants them to see.

I do care. I ought to leave, to come for him later, when he’s alone.

He leans over to nuzzle my ear, masking the sound of the wind and the waves with his noisy breath and blood. Canvas snaps, flapping loose from the frame of a nearby chair. The gulls come and make their cries, high and wheedling. Strollers on the deck below have brought table scraps to feed them. Little beggars. They snatch what is offered from the air: a crust of someone’s sandwich, a crisp, a bit of pink tomato. They feed flying in the light, which reveals the beautiful separateness of all things, while I must go below.

I take him to my cabin. He has his own, since his wife, even on dry land, is a semi-invalid, and they can well afford it. But the two adjoin, so I take him to mine, because there will be noise. I even say that’s why I want to go there, and he smiles. He’s so sure I’ll be the source of that noise.

We take off our clothes in the dark, stuffy room. I could have a better one, if I wanted. But this cabin, so low down, is more isolated. Insulated by emptiness on either side.

I have removed my glasses. My eyes are adjusted now, and I can see how self-conscious he is without his clothes. He bumps against the bed and sits down, then fumbles for the light switch. I kneel on the floor in front of him and make him stop. It’s easy. I let my tongues relax and wrap around his penis, which is a good size, not too big. Things are going well, considering.

Then, amazingly, he resists. An unusually strong-minded monkey, this one. He pushes me away by my shoulders, slides his hands under my armpits and lifts. He’s trying to get me to sit on him, and he mumbles how he’s always wanted to do it this way. The soft hairs covering his legs brush the backs of my thighs, my calves, as I obediently slide my knees up beside his hips. He rolls his penis against my pubic bone in a practiced move, which might excite me if I had a clitoris. He makes me taste his antiseptic, minty lips, the breath between them laden with the odors of coffee, sugar, flour, eggs. Breakfast. Then he pushes me away again, grappling me into position. He is strong, but I could fight him. I don’t. I want this. I need it. I have given up trying to make myself be careful and use my mouth.

He does scream. I do too, and shout “Oh God, I’m coming, I’m coming,” so if anyone hears us they’ll stay away. It lasts a little long for an orgasm, but after a couple of minutes he stops thrashing on the bed and lies still, deflating. I pump and pump. The rosy goodness suffuses me, warming my womb. When I’m done I fall into a dream, sliding slowly off the monkey and curling up next to him on the soiled sheets.

D. is with me, and we’re on a mountain in Costa Rica in the seven-sided house he had them build. He tries to tell me why it’s better, how the design dissipates the energy of earthquakes, which are common, but I am looking at the green, a green so very green I think my eyes will turn to emeralds before the sun has set. Behind a distant peak it goes, but the green does not go with it. Instead the valleys brim with green darkness, leaf-filled shadows expanding and thickening, clotting up the night with a truer, deeper green. 

I realize my companion has been silent for some time. “D.,” I say, “it’s good to be here, really here. Do you know what I mean?” He nods and touches the back of my neck. His sensitivity to the moment must be, in large part, responsible for the lengthiness of his life. Nine hundred years without even a half-hearted attempt at suicide. That’s good, for a male. Soon he will be fully mature.

I find myself kissing him. Our tongues separate, then twine, like lashing vines.

No force is applied on either side, but slowly we grow closer, closer. I am penetrated by the breeze coming through the open window, sharp as citrus; by the fine, probing mouths of flying insects, frustrated in their search for food. By D.’s tongues, too, delicately drawn along my skin, down, down, in, and piercing the membrane over my wombs entrance in an empty, reflexive action. Or I assume the action’s emptiness, in the moment. And as I return to the moment, dreaming, knowing this assumption is wrong disturbs my sleep.

I wake. The monkey’s corpse reeks of feces and the barest beginnings of decay. No blood—that’s all mine now, mine and my offspring’s. 

D.’s offspring, too. Precocious D., fertile a good century before it might have been expected. When my membrane thinned and tore, I should have known. But this is my first pregnancy. Not until I noticed other signs did I fathom the truth of my condition, so rare among us. And by then I had boarded the ship, and it was too late. I could have consumed the blood of a year’s supply of monkeys, if I’d had the cavities to store so much, and still that would be barely enough to satisfy me one month in this state.

Anxiously I examine myself once again, to be sure. Nipples dark and hard. Vaginal dentata pronounced—the normally flat triangular flaps are erect again with hunger, even so soon after my recent, reckless meal. H. told me many visits ago that the blood volume of an average female monkey increases by fifty percent in the early stages of her pregnancy.

I’m not used to having to work these sorts of things out, but I try to come up with a plan for disposing of the monkey’s remains. Although I concentrate, my head is filled with aimless, rootless thoughts. Perfume ads. Nursery rhymes. Three, six, nine, the goose drank wine. The monkey chewed tobacco on the street car line.I remember watching one of them, a small one, a female, jumping rope. The glass of shattered bottles glittered in the sun and she sang fiercely, breathlessly, as she leapt and fell, leapt and fell. The line broke, the monkey got choked. This is really very bad. And they all went to heaven in a little row-boat.

The sad thing is, I have no choice. Even if I managed to escape suspicion in the matter of this monkey’s death, the next stop is an island. Madeira. Entirely as problematic as a cruise ship. 

So I spend an hour being charming, a few minutes being devious in cramped, unlovely spaces, several more waiting near the lifeboat I’ve selected. Then everything’s all right again.

It’s not that I don’t care about the monkeys. I’m genuinely sorry that so many have to die, especially when it’s such a waste. I manage to salvage quite a few passengers and a handful of the crew. Not the boilermaster, nor his mate, so no one knows I have any idea about the cause of the explosion. Even in memory it’s tremendous, the most profound sound; much more ringing and metallic than any volcano. The dark, messy, crowded events preceding it fade in its majestic wake.

A stiff breeze keeps most of the smoke to our south. Rainbows of oil and bobbing detritus surround us, carried here on contrary currents. Each is unique: each random pattern, each odd, useless object brings its own ineffable message to the moment. Removed from context, these fragments of enameled metal, plastic, and wood, charred and reshaped by the forces I have unleashed, are sweetly new.

I wish I could show D. I know how deeply he understands these sorts of things. It is this that makes me sure he will live long, unlike so many other males. So many I have loved. As the coast of Africa comes into view, shorebirds soaring over whitecapped waves, I am buoyed by confidence. He will live many, many more years. Centuries. Long enough to witness the thousand births of each and every child I carry within my womb.

Nisi Shawl has many short stories and articles in print, in addition to reviewing books for the "Seattle Times" and serving as a board member of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her fiction has been shortlisted for awards including the Theodore Sturgeon Award, the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, and the Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award. "Cruel Sistah" appeared in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2006. Reflection's Edge interviewed her in October 2007.

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