THE DIFFICULTIES OF EVOLUTION
by Karen Heuler
copyright © 2008 / May not be reproduced without permission
(from Weird Tales #350, July/Aug 2008)
“I want to save this one,” Franka said, stroking Yagel, her youngest. The child sat in Franka’s lap, her dark eyes following the doctor happily. She chattered and waved her small hands around.
She’s my second,” Franka added. Her hand rubbed the spot on Yagel’s ribs where it was thickening.
Ah, yes,” Dr. Bennecort said. “Evan. What was he ― ten or so ― when it started?”
Yes. I thought, at her age, it was too early, there should be lots of time.”
You know it can happen at any point. I had a patient who was sixty …”
Yes, you told me,” Franka said impatiently, and stopped herself. She took a moment to calm herself, and the doctor waited. He was good ― patient, professional ― and Franka hoped that he could help. She wanted to say, “I’m imagining the worst,” and have him reply, “The worst won’t happen.” She knew better, but she was hoping to hear it nevertheless.
* * *
It had happened suddenly. Franka was bathing her daughter the week before, cooing at the smiling, prattling wonder of her life. After the shock of watching Evan go, she knew she was a little possessive. Franka smoothed the washcloth over the toddler’s skin, gently swirling water over the perfect limbs, the wrinkles at the joints, the plum calves and shoulders. She felt a thickening at the ribs ― an area that, surely, just the day before had been soft and pliant.
She automatically talked back as Yagel babbled, but she felt her face freeze and Yagel noticed the difference in her touch and grew concerned, her legs pumping impatiently.
And Franka couldn’t keep her hands off her, touching, touching the spots that were changing, until Yagel began to bruise, and Simyon told her to go to the doctor. He said it coldly. He felt the spots that Franka felt, and he holed himself up deep inside, leaving Franka to find out the truth alone.
She’s my second,” Franka whispered to the doctor. He’d been highly recommended by Deirdre, who had three emerald beetles tethered to her house, buzzing and smacking the picture window when the family sat down to watch TV. “We know their favorite shows,” Dierdre said. “We know when they’re happy.”
Franka didn’t want Yagel to end up like that, a child-sized insect swooping to her and away, eating from her palm. She wanted Yagel to end up a little girl.
Time will tell,” Dr. Bennecort said. Time, and blood tests. Yagel screamed when the needle went in, but she forgot it all when given a lollipop. Maybe everything was still all right.
A month to get the results. And packets of information, numbers of people to talk to, a video explaining the process. He forgot she already had all this, from when Evan changed.
She didn’t look at any of it, and neither did Simyon.
I don’t want this to happen,” Franka whispered to her daughter, day and night. Yagel cooed back.
Don’t you think you could love her, no matter what?” Deirdre asked cruelly when she came to lend her support. She so seldom left her home; she preferred to stay close to her emerald boys. Some people let their children go when they changed, gave in and released them. Took the ones that swam to the sea, and the ones that flew to the hills. The lucky ones kept the cats and dogs as pets ― not such a change, after all ― and put the ponies in the yard. You could wish for the higher orders; you could wish for the softer, cuddlier evolutions, but you couldn’t change what was meant to be.
But whatever they are, you love them, still,” Deirdre said.
* * *
The three emerald beetles were about the size of a five-year-old child. They lifted and fluttered up and hit the window sometimes three at a time, with whirring thuds, they pulled to the ends of their cords, their green wings pulsing.
My dears, my sweets,” Deirdre thought as she stood on the inside of the picture window, her fingertips touching the glass as they swooped towards her, their hard black eyes intent. “My all, my all, my all.”
She put out bowls for them, rotted things mixed with honey and vitamins, her own recipe, and rolled down the awning in case it rained, and went to Franka’s house when she called, where she found her friend with her child in her arms.
Feel this,” Franka said. She rubbed a spot along Yagel’s ribs. “It’s thicker, isn’t it? Not like the rest of her skin.”
Deirdre took her fingers and delicately felt the spot. It felt like a piece of tape under the skin ― less resilient, forming a kind of half-moon. “Yes,” Deirdre said. “Maybe. It could be anything.”
Evan was ten,” Franka whispered. “And she’s only three. Your boys ― did it happen at the same age for each?”
Deirdre shook her head. “Every one was different,” she said, trying to find the right thing to say. “They’re always different.”
* * *
Every day, Yagel’s skin thickened, making her arms and legs appear shorter. She no longer tried to stand up: crawling seemed to be more efficient. The first thick spot on her back now had a scale-like or plate-like appearance. Franka went to the library and began to look through books for an animal that matched: armadillo, no; rhino, no. And not elephant skin either. She skipped over whole sections, refusing to look at tortoises, lizards, snakes.
They were taught evolution as children, of course ― the intimate, intricate link of the stages of life. Ameba, fish, crawling fish, reptile; pupa, insect; egg, bird; chimp, ape, human; all the wonderful trigonometry of form and function. The beauty of it was startling. However life started, it changed. You were a baby once, then you’re different. Each egg had its own calling; no one stopped.
How beautiful it was to watch as characteristics became form, as the infant with a lithe crawl became a cat; as the toddler with the steady gaze became an owl, as the child who ran became a horse. It was magnificent. Her own brother had soared into the sky finally, a remarkable crow (always attracted to sparkle, rawkishly rowdy). She had envied him―his completion. She had stayed a child.
Still. Maybe it was less than magnificent when it was your own child. Or it was some deficit of her own. Simyon told her gruffly, “Babies grow up, Franka. You know they change. You don’t decide when it’s time for them to go; they do. When it’s right for them. Not for you.”
He was not a sympathetic man―but had that always been true? No. He used to be interested in her worries; he used to want to soothe her rather than lecture. Although―she told herself ― he was dealing with it, too. Both children evolving; leaving. So quickly gone. Of course it was hard for him, too.
She remembered her own brother’s meta-morphosis as a magical time―she had leapt up out of bed each morning to see the change in him overnight: a pouty mouth to a beak; dark fuzz on his shoulders into feathers; the way his feet cramped into claws; the tilt of his head and the glitter of his eye. It had been wonderful to see him fly, leaning out the window one minute, through it the next.
Even in the memory of it she heard her mother’s faltering cry. How stodgy her mother had seemed.
She leaned over Yagel. “I will always love you,” she confided to the child’s tender ear. Yagel poked her tongue out, clamped her arms to her side. “Always, Franka repeated. “Always.” She kissed her on the neck and bit her ear tenderly.
Her neighbor Phoebe had two girls, neither of them evolved. She looked pregnant again and Franka went over to talk to her. “I think Yagel is evolving,” she said. “You’re so lucky.” Of course it was wrong not to accept her children as they were, but she felt it in her, a deep reluctance to let go.
Phoebe nodded. “It’s so nice to have them at home for so long, yes. Of course there’s so much beauty in the changes ― you know Hildy’s girl?” Franka nodded. “A lunar moth. Elegant, curved wings. Extraordinary. Trembling on the roof. Hildy’s taken photos and made an incredible silkscreen image. It’s haunting. I look at some of the changes and it feels almost religious.”
Phoebe’s face looked dutiful and Franka knew a lie when she heard one: the false sincerity, the false envy. It was always better to have children who stayed children, and not some phenomenal moth. And when they changed, there was always a judgment. No one really said it, but it was there. The mothers of sharks would always weep. Children who didn’t evolve were more of a blessing, no matter how basic it was to evolve.
You’re too possessive,” Simyon said, hunched over his dinner. He was eating quickly, tearing at his food. “Life is change.” He finished his meal and prowled down the hall, going into his daughter’s room, sniffing and blinking. “Reptile,” he said, coming back. “Cold blood.” He went off to watch his TV.
She drove around the next day, slowly. There were cages everywhere, some of them immense and gothic. There were new ponds, and short bursts of trees. A huge, exquisite ceramic beehive stood next to a garage. She heard the trumpet of an elephant down the next road, and the scream of a peacock.
As she drove, heads poked from the corners of garages and from behind gazebos, some of them not yet completely determined. She made a mental note to remember where they were, in case she needed them. For Yagel.
Sometimes the changes were slow, and sometimes the changes were fast. Yagel stood up again and walked like a little girl―stubby, but a little girl. She described every event of her day, repeating the things the other little girls had done, describing how one of them grew a bandit mask on her face and sometimes washed her food before eating.
She’s all right,” Simyon said stubbornly.
I’m afraid for her,” she said, and her voice sounded thick. Simyon’s hard, bushy eyes stared at her, ticking down her body, studying her.
Maybe Yagel would never change; maybe this was just her version of a little girl. Some evolved early; some evolved late. Every morning she counted Yagel’s fingers and toes, and then she counted her own. She longed for nighttime and the rise of the wind, for the moment of freshness at the start of a storm.
She was beginning to sense her own change and was surprised one day to look at Yagel and consider how fragile she was, how available and simple her neck looked, how fatty her arms and how ample her thighs. She caught new angles when she saw her face in the mirror, a starkness that hadn’t been there and now struck her as cunning. She went to the top of the stairs and stared down them; she looked out the windows and her eyes caught the blur and skitter of countless beings, hiding behind and under things. She no longer cooked her food and finally Simyon coaxed her out with promises of meat, and locked the door against her.
* * *
She had skin stretched tight across the bones that pulled out from her shoulders, a hard elastic that wrinkled only when she pulled in her elbows firm against her ribs. When she stretched her arms out it was not possible to fight the tug, stronger than blood, that lifted her, or dropped her from great heights when she’d already been lifted. When she fell, it was with a liquid plummet, streamlined and terrible, her jaw slicing the air, her eyes tricking out every detail. Each movement in the air was adrenaline: she was pure and fast and vastly hungry. When she sighted her prey she started out silent and swift but just before she struck a large chaotic cry burst from her, turning the prey’s eyes up, freezing their limbs. Just like that, food.
Small and furry; fat and hairy; clothed and crying; it didn’t matter. The power was hers and in the air and right; what she could take was meant to be taken. High up, on the tips of the buildings, she could feel it all move beneath her, each little tiny patter, each needless drumming word. They soon took to rifles and guns and arrows, and she slipped behind buildings, faster than they were, and took them out when they pointed to where she’d been. As if she would ever stay where she once had been.
This was what she was meant to be and she filled her throat with the joy of it.
Karen Heuler’s story “Landscape, With Fish” appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Weird Tales. She has published two novels and a short story collection, and has won an O. Henry award. Her latest novel, Journey to Bom Goody, concerns strange doings in the Amazon. She lives, writes and teaches in New York.