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Cataclysm Baby

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Cataclysm Baby

  Cataclysm Baby

  Matt Bell

  Beset with environmental disaster, animal-like children, and the failure of traditional roles, the twenty-six fathers of Cataclysm Baby raise their desperate voices to reveal the strange stations of frustrated parenthood, to proclaim familial thrashings against the fading light of our exhausted planet, its glory grown wild again. As the known world disappears, these beleaguered and all-too-breakable men cling ever tighter to the duties of an unrecoverable past, even as their children rush ahead, evolve away.

  Unflinching in the face of apocalypse and unblinking before the complicated gaze of parental love, Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby is a powerful chronicle of our last days, and of the tentative graces that might fill the hours of our dusk.


  By Matt Bell

  For my parents,

  who survived five cataclysms of their own

  “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping thing, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth.”

  —Genesis 7:23, KJV

  “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”

  —Cormac McCarthy, The Road

  Abelard, Abraham, Absalom

  This smoldered cigar, last of a box of twenty, bought to celebrate happier times, now smoked to keep away the smell of our unwashed skin, of our slipping flesh, of our baby grown in my wife’s belly, the submerged sign of a prophecy burning, stretching taut her hard bulge: All hair, just like the others, gone wrong again.

  Fists of black hail fall from the cloudless sky and spatter the house, streak the skin of our walls, break windows above broken beds. The birth-room fills with air the texture of mud, with black birds forgetting how to fly, these crows and vultures waiting to make a nest of our child, and still I focus, keep my eyes on shattered glass, on my wife’s pelvis tilting toward sunlight, toward sun turned the color of baby’s first stool, then the color of blood.

  Then the blood, flowing between my wife’s legs.

  Hopeful cigar smoked, held between loose teeth, I say, Push. I say, Push right now.

  And then it comes, becomes: A baby boy, born just like the others. Hair on cheeks, on forehead, on lips and tongue. Inverse of our own nakedness. Shame in an equal and opposite amount.

  For our baby, a name chosen from a book of names. Each name exhausted one after another, a sequenced failure. I hook a finger into our baby’s tiny mouth and pull out hair, hairball. From furred windpipe. From matted esophagus.

  Only my wife cries. Only the birds caw, flap their wings. Only again a howl of spoor, cigar sputter.

  Pull, my wife says. Pull.

  As if I could ever pull enough. As if I could ever clear the lungs of this fur. As if I could clear the stomach. As if I could clear the heart, its chambers full, clenched, wrong for what harrowed world awaits. Pull, she says. Pull. Pull. Pull. And what coward I would be to stop.

  Beatrice, Bella, Blaise

  The older was the first to show us the scars, the archeology of her sister-scribed history, hard-written by their cutting, their stabbing, their sawing. The younger better hid her sister’s handiwork, bore well the bands of reddened flesh and puckered scars beneath shirt, beneath sleeve, beneath shorts and underwear.

  Even in the bath we barely noticed.

  Even when the younger found trouble standing, even then we refused to believe.

  Always the younger had limped, we argued. Always she had struggled to balance. Always her ears had been notched, her fingers a crooked nine.

  What trust we had in the older then! What light touch she had, what blinding perfect smile made to answer our questions!

  It had taken the younger’s retribution to reveal the older’s now-avenged crime, took the continuing destruction of that first body for us to discover the slower attrition of the second, and so afterward what right to anger did we have toward the younger, even at the shocking sight of the diminished older, our beloved eldest?

  Perhaps none, we decided. Perhaps girls will be girls, no matter what we parents say.

  And what else to do next, but let them work this out themselves?

  To support their interests, we buy stocks of whetstones, of wood blocks filled with meat knives, of blister-packaged scissors, until at last our house is pregnant with the voices of children playing, craving only to get nearer each other, to have the other close at hand: Tag, you’re it, then, Duck, duck, goose! The older leads these games, a born teacher, but it is the younger who best exploits their rules. Every evening their screaming laughter cuts through our locked bedroom door, until one night we hear only the voice of the younger, playing all alone.

  Ring around the rosie, she sings, skipping through the house, calling out our names, our titles—yelling mother up the stairs, shouting father outside our door.

  We all fall down, she sings, throwing her skinny bones against the bolts.

  We all fall down together!

  And then: the creak of the doorframe, the give of the lock, the tenuous grace of a chain, pulled short.

  Cain, Caleb, Cameron

  The doctors promised twins but delivered only one baby from my wife’s pummeled womb, her troubled cavity. First the push, push, then the blood, then my mistake-toothed firstborn gnashing in the nurse’s arms: chubby, too chubby, too covered in mother’s gore.

  And then my wife continuing to scream.

  And then the doctors begging her to stop.

  And then what came next, what loose hair, what loose skin, what loose son or daughter, what delta of destruction flowing: my eyes, my wife’s nose, swimming small and recognizable in the flotsam—and then what once-plump arms, what legs covered in bite marks, such expired flesh taken clean off soft baby bones.

  In the nursery, our son cried sleepless, sucked frozen pacifiers, pulled at his ears with his fingers, and from behind the glass between us I watched helpless as he chewed his blanket, as he choked past his pillow’s stuffing, unsatisfied.

  At home, it is my wife who cries, while our firstborn sucks her tit dry, while his rows of teeth puncture her skin, pock-mark her areola. And how to respond when she complains of his always-hunger, when in an empty voice she begs me to allow the bottle instead?

  But look at our son, I say.

  Look how tall he’s grown. Look how strong.

  Look how he walks, only a month old.

  Look how he lifts the icebox lid, how he opens the packaging with his teeth.

  Look at his mouth, stained again a ring of red, just like the day he was born.

  Domina, Doreen, Dorma

  What month of dark mornings followed? What spring or fall, what remade season of locusts and black flies besetting our town, flown in on thickening air and sickening smell? And there, in the middle of its days, appears this chrysalis, this cocoon, this child-shaped bundle found wrapped in our morning sheets, tangled in the space where our toddling daughter once slept, dream-thrashed and nightmare-ridden as she clung to our skin, our heat.

  A chrysalis? I ask my wife. A cocoon?

  What’s the difference, she says, when it’s your child inside, when it’s your caterpillar?

  We vow to keep it close, to sleep beside it until it ruptures, until what cocoons are for: until she emerges, no longer a child.

  To cradle my pupa in my arms. To rock it in the rocking chair. To wait and hope, and at last to see the new shape pressed urgent against the inner skin of the chitin—and then to crack wide the chrysalis with one hand, to with the other force my daughter free.

  To behold the dripping wings, the glistening thorax; the changed head, the new mouth.

  I open the nursery window and let th
e room fill with locusts and flies, those other black wings, other black legs, other black mouths bent on devouring all they can catch: Only me, only what flaking skin I have left. Only my daughter’s fresh wings, her span of translucent amber flapping free the scent of molt dust, of moth smoke.

  And then the hairy touch of her legs on my legs, on my hips, on my chest; then the click of her mandibles, clipping locusts from my ears, knocking flies from my lips and eyes.

  And then my wife and I at the nursery window, watching her leave. Watching her join the town’s other golden children, together flying a sky clouded shut. Keeping us safe, at least until the locusts run out. Until the flies are gone. Until the trees and grass and shrubs are empty of leaf and branch.

  Until all the rest the creeping thing stops.

  Until my grief-stung wife disappears, first into herself, a body spun inside a heartache, and then again outside our home, into the cloud of children blacking our sky.

  The rest of us shut our hungry selves away, whisper through glass pane, through locked door: You can’t ever come home, we say, but no words can stop the knocking against our lit windows, our delicate houses.

  The next time I see her, how big she’s gotten: My only daughter, all grown up.

  And now her string of milky eggs across the window.

  Now her own caterpillars, hungry for what world remains.

  Edgar, Edric, Eduardo

  My wife and I are too bloated to climb by the time the vines reach the floor of this spoiled forest, our bodies too quaking with fat to grasp even the lowest of their fruits. We call for our son, that skinny boy sunburned from his scavenging, and then we teach him to climb, to imitate the monkeys that screech from the branches. From our backs, we holler how best to shimmy the twenty-story vines of this new jungle, this eruption of trunk and thorn and branch and thistle rising from where our concrete once strangled the earth: All that old life gone now, replaced by towering trees, by mud made anew, by daily wallows and failed waddles, by the deforestation diet of my hungry wife and my own hearty appetite.

  To our son: Climb, we cry. Climb, and bring us back what there is to find.

  For some while it works. He returns with bony arms full of guavas, peaches, papaya, descends the vines with breeches torn and stained, his pockets stuffed with bananas, other fruits dropped whole into my gulping gullet, into the strained esophagus of his mother.

  Our baby boy, our darling son, born into this lonely forest, made for this world to which we cannot adapt: Without him we would be lost, would surely starve and waste away.

  For a month he brings such quantities of fruit, until our cheeks bulge with the feasts of his foraging, and after each feeding we bid him stay close, bid him to sit beside us while we question him about the treetops. We ask, Have you seen anyone else above, in the sway and the swing? Are there others still left? Other boys and girls feeding other parents trapped below?

  Our boy shakes his head in feigned loneliness, but each passing day reveals the length of his lie: First a bracelet of flowering vines, knitted by another, then a pox of hickies, a necklace of bruises. Suck-marks, my wife sneers, driving our son back into the high trees, where he leaps easy from vine to branch to trunk. Her disapproval follows him, pushes him higher and higher, until there is nothing to see, until the forest is silent around us.

  Then our breakfast arriving slow, our lunch late.

  Then our dinners not coming at all.

  Then our guts aching, desperate for what grows above.

  We gather our quivering bodies, release our screamed demands into the canopy, but still no son appears. Still no meal follows. To keep us company there is only the squawk of the monkeys descending lower by the day, growing braver on the vines in the absence of our once overprotective son. There is only their toothy muzzles, stained with the fruits of the hunt, and then, from far above, the airy laughter of our child, of all our children who have ascended into the bowers, into the verdant newness suspended above this fallen earth, this last of all the muck and mud we’ve known.

  Fawn, Fiona, Fjola

  They take our daughter and in return they grant us eight hours of light a day, plus nutrient-enriched air pumped thick and cool through the vents in the concrete ceilings, the non-slip floors. The mother and I alternate days washing ourselves in the extra fifteen minutes of water we’re rationed, but despite their promises this cleanliness does not lead us to renewed conversation, to revigored copulation. Before the makings of our daughter I did not know this woman, and now that the daughter is gone we rarely speak, barely look in each other’s direction even when the thrumming lights permit.

  Instead, our eyes swivel toward the silver screens set into the walls, into every tight-cornered wall. Working silently, the mother and I move all our furniture: In the living room, we discard tables and ottomans, push the couch so near we have to climb over the arms to sit cross-legged before the flicker, and then we continue on, driving room to room the destruction of inessential surfaces, unnecessary seating, until in the bedroom we shift our mattress into the cleared space below the largest screen, beneath the silver stretch of video as long as our once-used bed.

  On our knees, we press our faces to the screen, put our ears to speakers making only soothing static, the swooping sound of television dreams: This is where they promised we’d see our daughter again, where they said she’d return beautiful and whole, not womb-thrashed and gene-short, not malnourished and depressed.

  Not like her parents, they promised.

  The mother and I waste our brightest hours peering into the static, but no matter how many channels we check we find no daughter, and also no other programming, as there was the last cycle of abundant light, of quick electricity.

  Each day that passes, we breathe deeper of the processed air, let its engineered taste force us into health, into some state like happiness.

  Each day, we wash in our daily bucket of water, perfume ourselves before showing off our broadening faces, our fresh flesh plump with improved circumstance.

  For one minute we tell each other our trade was worth it, because only then can we bring ourselves to gaze again the daughterless static, to stare until our eyes ache, until we cannot resist calling the talent scouts who took from us our only child.

  Into the phone, we say, Where is her better life you promised? Where is her bright and shining future? What channel you guaranteed, what better reality captured beneath lights and microphones, and where is it to be found?

  They do not answer our questions.

  All they say is, Keep watching.

  All they say is, Trust us—And what other choice do we have?

  How healthy the mother appears, how fat my face reflected in her worried eyes, until the day the power whirrs off, the lights go dark, the fans stop blowing.

  The television’s dwindling dim casts us into silence, leaving only our still-stinking breath to fill the air once stubborn with its sound. With hands held between us for the first time since the daughter-making, the mother and I kneel upon the bed, press our bodies to the screen. Wracked with rediscovered heat and hunger, we beg for a glimpse, any single sound from the throat of our mistake-given daughter, but the screen offers only glassy potential, only what might still be, if we watch, if we believe.

  How far gone are we then, when the mother begins to beg, when she first pleads aloud?

  I have forgotten our daughter’s face, she says, her own deflating cheeks pressed against the screen, streaming the stale dark, washing the dust from its silence.

  She says, Please. Please describe her, remind me, tell me what I cannot see so that I might recognize her when she comes: Her new hair, her new face, her new body.

  I tell the mother again what the scout promised, what he told us our daughter would have because of our sacrifice, because of our willingness to go without.

  I tell her how our daughter resides now on the surface, under the sun we have not seen in years, except on this still-dark screen.

  I tell
her about the shining mane that surely grows from our daughter’s once-shorn scalp, the teeth that must sprout white from her once-unsocketed gums.

  I tell her about our daughter’s rebuilt mind, her promised ability to sound whole words, to speak in fullest sentences, her voice made so different from when she lived with us.

  I tell her how I see our once-daughter hugged by new parents.

  I tell her how this girl has probably forgotten all about us.

  How she’s never coming back. How that’s a kindness.

  How instead of our daughter, we have chosen each other, and how I am sorry.

  I tell her, The power will be restored any minute. They promised us.

  This for that, I tell her. This for that is what they promised us.

  I tell her, Stop crying. I tell her, Stop crying right now.

  Greyson, Griffin, Guillermo

  Perhaps only their mother could distinguish between the boys, could reckon their slight variations in weight, the distinct cervix-bends of their skulls. I never could, not when they appeared as three redheaded infants and not when they were toddlers, all dressed alike in the preference of my good and then gone wife.

  As teenagers they each ate the same amount of porridge each morning, the same third of a meat-can at dusk, and even the first time I caught one masturbating, I caught all three, circled between their bunks, each mimicking the motion of another’s hands. Ditto drinking, ditto the glass-pipes, ditto the new milk-drawn drugs I’d never known before their schoolmaster called.

  With their mandatory facemasks and goggles affixed, no one could tell my boys apart, but then no one could recognize anyone else either, not after the baggy state-issued jumpsuits, the preventative head-shavings.

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