Oryx and Crake
My thanks to the Society of Authors (England), as the literary representative of the estate ofVirginia Woolf, for permission to quote from To the Lighthouse; to Anne Carson for permission
to quote from The Beauty of the Husband; and to John Calder Publications and Grove Atlantic forpermission to quote eight words from Samuel Beckett’s novel, Mercier and Camier. A full list
of the other quotations used or paraphrased on the fridge magnets in this book may be found atoryxandcrake.com. “Winter Wonderland,” alluded to in Part 9, is by Felix Bernard and RichardB. Smith, and is copyrighted by Warner Bros.
The name “Amanda Payne” was graciously supplied by its auction-winning owner, thereby raisingmuch-needed funds for the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (U.K.). Alexthe parrot is a participant in the animal-intelligence work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg, and is theprotagonist of many books, documentaries, and Web sites. He has given his name to the AlexFoundation. Thank you also to Tuco the parrot, who lives with Sharon Doobenen and Brian Brett,and to Ricki the parrot, who lives with Ruth Atwood and Ralph Siferd.
Deep background was inadvertently supplied by many magazines and newspapers and non-fictionscience writers encountered over the years. A full list of these is available at
oryxandcrake.com. Thanks also to Dr. Dave Mossop and Grace Mossop, and to Norman and BarbaraBarichello, of Whitehorse, in the Yukon, Canada; to Max Davidson and team, of Davidson’sArnheimland Safaris, Australia; to my brother, neurophysiologist Dr. Harold Atwood (thank youfor the study of sex hormones in unborn mice, and other arcana); to Lic. Gilberto Silva andLic. Orlando Garrido, dedicated biologists, of Cuba; to Matthew Swan and team, of AdventureCanada, on one of whose Arctic voyages a portion of this book was written; to the boys at thelab, 1939–45; and to Philip and Sue Gregory of Cassowary House, Queensland, Australia, fromwhose balcony, in March 2002, the author observed that rare bird, the Red-necked Crake.
My gratitude as well to astute early readers Sarah Cooper, Matthew Poulikakis, Jess AtwoodGibson, Ron Bernstein, Maya Mavjee, Louise Dennys, Steve Rubin, Arnulf Conradi, and RosalieAbella; to my agents, Phoebe Larmore, Vivienne Schuster, and Diana Mackay; to my editors, EllenSeligman of McClelland & Stewart (Canada), Nan Talese of Doubleday (U.S.A.), and Liz Calder ofBloomsbury (U.K.); and to my dauntless copyeditor, Heather Sangster. Also to my hardworkingassistant, Jennifer Osti, and to Surya Bhattacharya, the keeper of the ominous Brown Box ofresearch clippings. Also to Arthur Gelgoot, Michael Bradley, and Pat Williams; and to EileenAllen, Melinda Dabaay, and Rose Tornato. And finally, to Graeme Gibson, my partner of thirtyyears, dedicated nature-watcher, and enthusiastic participant in the Pelee Island Bird Race ofOntario, Canada, who understands the obsessiveness of the writer.
Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wavesloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He wouldso like to believe he is still asleep. On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, litnow with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towersstand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of thelagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against theersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost likeholiday traffic.
Out of habit he looks at his watch – stainless-steel case, burnished aluminum band, stillshiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is whatit shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence ofofficial time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.
“Calm down,” he tells himself. He takes a few deep breaths, then scratches his bug bites,around but not on the itchiest places, taking care not to knock off any scabs: blood poisoningis the last thing he needs. Then he scans the ground below for wildlife: all quiet, no scalesand tails. Left hand, right foot, right hand, left foot, he makes his way down from the tree.After brushing off the twigs and bark, he winds his dirty bedsheet around himself like a toga.He’s hung his authentic-replica Red Sox baseball cap on a branch overnight for safekeeping; hechecks inside it, flicks out a spider, puts it on.
He walks a couple of yards to the left, pisses into the bushes. “Heads up,” he says to thegrasshoppers that whir away at the impact. Then he goes to the other side of the tree, wellaway from his customary urinal, and rummages around in the cache he’s improvised from a fewslabs of concrete, lining it with wire mesh to keep out the rats and mice. He’s stashed somemangoes there, knotted in a plastic bag, and a can of Sveltana No-Meat Cocktail Sausages, and aprecious half-bottle of Scotch – no, more like a third – and a chocolate-flavoured energy barscrounged from a trailer park, limp and sticky inside its foil. He can’t bring himself to eatit yet: it might be the last one he’ll ever find. He keeps a can opener there too, and for noparticular reason an ice pick; and six empty beer bottles, for sentimental reasons and forstoring fresh water. Also his sunglasses; he puts them on. One lens is missing but they’rebetter than nothing.
He undoes the plastic bag: there’s only a single mango left. Funny, he remembered more. Theants have got in, even though he tied the bag as tightly as he could. Already they’re runningup his arms, the black kind and the vicious little yellow kind. Surprising what a sharp stingthey can give, especially the yellow ones. He rubs them away.
“It is the strict adherence to daily routine that tends towards the maintenance of good moraleand the preservation of sanity,” he says out loud. He has the feeling he’s quoting from abook, some obsolete, ponderous directive written in aid of European colonials runningplantations of one kind or another. He can’t recall ever having read such a thing, but thatmeans nothing. There are a lot of blank spaces in his stub of a brain, where memory used to be.Rubber plantations, coffee plantations, jute plantations. (What was jute?) They would have beentold to wear solar topis, dress for dinner, refrain from raping the natives. It wouldn’t have
. Refrain from fraternizing with the female inhabitants. Or, put some other way . .said raping
He bets they didn’t refrain, though. Nine times out of ten.
“In view of the mitigating,” he says. He finds himself standing with his mouth open, tryingto remember the rest of the sentence. He sits down on the ground and begins to eat the mango.
On the white beach, ground-up coral and broken bones, a group of the children are walking. Theymust have been swimming, they’re still wet and glistening. They should be more careful: whoknows what may infest the lagoon? But they’re unwary; unlike Snowman, who won’t dip a toe inthere even at night, when the sun can’t get at him. Revision: especially at night.
He watches them with envy, or is it nostalgia? It can’t be that: he never swam in the sea as achild, never ran around on a beach without any clothes on. The children scan the terrain,stoop, pick up flotsam; then they deliberate among themselves, keeping some items, discardingothers; their treasures go into a torn sack. Sooner or later – he can count on it – they’llseek him out where he sits wrapped in his decaying sheet, hugging his shins and sucking on hismango, in under the shade of the trees because of the punishing sun. For the children – thick-skinned, resistant to ultraviolet – he’s a creature of dimness, of the dusk.
Here they come now. “Snowman, oh Snowman,” they chant in their singsong way. They never standtoo close to him. Is that from respect, as he’d like to think, or because he stinks?
(He does stink, he knows that well enough. He’s rank, he’s gamy, he reeks like a walrus –oily, salty, fishy – not that he’s ever smelled such a beast. But he’s seen pictures.)
Opening up their sack, the children chorus, “Oh Snowman, what have we found?” They lift outthe objects, hold them up as if offering them for sale: a hubcap, a piano key, a chunk of pale-green pop bottle smoothed by the ocean. A plastic BlyssPluss container, empty; a ChickieNobsBucket O’Nubbins, ditto. A computer mouse, or the busted remains of one, with a long wirytail.
Snowman feels like weeping. What can he tell them? There’s no way of explaining to them whatthese curious items are, or were. But surely they’ve guessed what he’ll say, because it’salways the same.
“These are things from before.” He keeps his voice kindly but remote. A cross betweenpedagogue, soothsayer, and benevolent uncle – that should be his tone.
“Will they hurt us?” Sometimes they find tins of motor oil, caustic solvents, plastic bottlesof bleach. Booby traps from the past. He’s considered to be an expert on potential accidents:scalding liquids, sickening fumes, poison dust. Pain of odd kinds.
“These, no,” he says. “These are safe.” At this they lose interest, let the sack dangle.But they don’t go away: they stand, they stare. Their beachcombing is an excuse. Mostly theywant to look at him, because he’s so unlike them. Every so often they ask him to take off hissunglasses and put them on again: they want to see whether he has two eyes really, or three.
“Snowman, oh Snowman,” they’re singing, less to him than to one another. To them his name isjust two syllables. They don’t know what a snowman is, they’ve never seen snow.
It was one of Crake’s rules that no name could be chosen for which a physical equivalent –even stuffed, even skeletal – could not be demonstrated. No unicorns, no griffins, nomanticores or basilisks. But those rules no longer apply, and it’s given Snowman a bitterpleasure to adopt this dubious label. The Abominable Snowman – existing and not existing,flickering at the edges of blizzards, apelike man or manlike ape, stealthy, elusive, known onlythrough rumours and through its backward-pointing footprints. Mountain tribes were said to havechased it down and killed it when they had the chance. They were said to have boiled it,roasted it, held special feasts; all the more exciting, he supposes, for bordering oncannibalism. For present purposes he’s shortened the name. He’s only Snowman. He’s kept
to himself, his own secret hair shirt. the abominable
After a few moments of hesitation the children squat down in a half-circle, boys and girlstogether. A couple of the younger ones are still munching on their breakfasts, the green juicerunning down their chins. It’s discouraging how grubby everyone gets without mirrors. Still,they’re amazingly attractive, these children – each one naked, each one perfect, each one adifferent skin colour – chocolate, rose, tea, butter, cream, honey – but each with greeneyes. Crake’s aesthetic.
They’re gazing at Snowman expectantly. They must be hoping he’ll talk to them, but he isn’tin the mood for it today. At the very most he might let them see his sunglasses, up close, orhis shiny, dysfunctional watch, or his baseball cap. They like the cap, but don’t understandhis need for such a thing – removable hair that isn’t hair – and he hasn’t yet invented afiction for it.
They’re quiet for a bit, staring, ruminating, but then the oldest one starts up. “Oh Snowman,please tell us – what is that moss growing out of your face?” The others chime in. “Pleasetell us, please tell us!” No nudging, no giggling: the question is serious.
“Feathers,” he says.
They ask this question at least once a week. He gives the same answer. Even over such a shorttime – two months, three? He’s lost count – they’ve accumulated a stock of lore, ofconjecture about him:
Snowman was once a bird but he’s forgotten how to fly and the rest of his feathers fell out,and so he is cold and he needs a second skin, and he has to wrap himself up. No: he’s coldbecause he eats fish, and fish are cold. No: he wraps himself up because he’s missing his manthing, and he doesn’t want us to see. That’s why he won’t go swimming. Snowman has wrinklesbecause he once lived underwater and it wrinkled up his skin. Snowman is sad because the others
like him flew away over the sea, and now he is all alone.
“I want feathers too,” says the youngest. A vain hope: no beards on the men, among theChildren of Crake. Crake himself had found beards irrational; also he’d been irritated by thetask of shaving, so he’d abolished the need for it. Though not of course for Snowman: too latefor him.
Now they all begin at once. “Oh Snowman, oh Snowman, can we have feathers too, please?”
“No,” he says.
“Why not, why not?” sing the two smallest ones.
“Just a minute, I’ll ask Crake.” He holds his watch up to the sky, turns it around on hiswrist, then puts it to his ear as if listening to it. They follow each motion, enthralled.“No,” he says. “Crake says you can’t. No feathers for you. Now piss off.”
“Piss off? Piss off?” They look at one another, then at him. He’s made a mistake, he’s saida new thing, one that’s impossible to explain. Piss isn’t something they’d find insulting.“What is piss off?”
“Go away!” He flaps his sheet at them and they scatter, running along the beach. They’restill not sure whether to be afraid of him, or how afraid. He hasn’t been known to harm achild, but his nature is not fully understood. There’s no telling what he might do.
“Now I’m alone,” he says out loud. “All, all alone. Alone on a wide, wide sea.” One morescrap from the burning scrapbook in his head.
He feels the need to hear a human voice – a fully human voice, like his own. Sometimes helaughs like a hyena or roars like a lion – his idea of a hyena, his idea of a lion. He used towatch old DVDs of such creatures when he was a child: those animal-behaviour programs featuringcopulation and growling and innards, and mothers licking their young. Why had he found them soreassuring?
Or he grunts and squeals like a pigoon, or howls like a wolvog: Aroo! Aroo! Sometimes in the
dusk he runs up and down on the sand, flinging stones at the ocean and screaming, Shit, shit,
He feels better afterwards. shit, shit, shit!
He stands up and raises his arms to stretch, and his sheet falls off. He looks down at his bodywith dismay: the grimy, bug-bitten skin, the salt-and-pepper tufts of hair, the thickeningyellow toenails. Naked as the day he was born, not that he can remember a thing about that. Somany crucial events take place behind people’s backs, when they aren’t in a position towatch: birth and death, for instance. And the temporary oblivion of sex.
“Don’t even think about it,” he tells himself. Sex is like drink, it’s bad to startbrooding about it too early in the day.
He used to take good care of himself; he used to run, work out at the gym. Now he can see hisown ribs: he’s wasting away. Not enough animal protein. A woman’s voice says caressingly inhis ear, Nice buns! It isn’t Oryx, it’s some other woman. Oryx is no longer very talkative.
“Say anything,” he implores her. She can hear him, he needs to believe that, but she’sgiving him the silent treatment. “What can I do?” he asks her. “You know I . . .”
Oh, nice abs! comes the whisper, interrupting him. Honey, just lie back. Who is it? Some tart
he once bought. Revision, professional sex-skills expert. A trapeze artist, rubber spine,spangles glued onto her like the scales of a fish. He hates these echoes. Saints used to hearthem, crazed lice-infested hermits in their caves and deserts. Pretty soon he’ll be seeingbeautiful demons, beckoning to him, licking their lips, with red-hot nipples and flickeringpink tongues. Mermaids will rise from the waves, out there beyond the crumbling towers, andhe’ll hear their lovely singing and swim out to them and be eaten by sharks. Creatures withthe heads and breasts of women and the talons of eagles will swoop down on him, and he’ll openhis arms to them, and that will be the end. Brainfrizz.
Or worse, some girl he knows, or knew, will come walking towards him through the trees, andshe’ll be happy to see him but she’ll be made of air. He’d welcome even that, for thecompany.
He scans the horizon, using his one sunglassed eye: nothing. The sea is hot metal, the sky ableached blue, except for the hole burnt in it by the sun. Everything is so empty. Water, sand,sky, trees, fragments of past time. Nobody to hear him.
“Crake!” he yells. “Asshole! Shit-for-brains!”
He listens. The salt water is running down his face again. He never knows when that will happenand he can never stop it. His breath is coming in gasps, as if a giant hand is clenching aroundhis chest – clench, release, clench. Senseless panic.
“You did this!” he screams at the ocean.
No answer, which isn’t surprising. Only the waves, wish-wash, wish-wash. He wipes his fistacross his face, across the grime and tears and snot and the derelict’s whiskers and stickymango juice. “Snowman, Snowman,” he says. “Get a life.”
Once upon a time, Snowman wasn’t Snowman. Instead he was Jimmy. He’d been a good boy then.
Jimmy’s earliest complete memory was of a huge bonfire. He must have been five, maybe six. Hewas wearing red rubber boots with a smiling duck’s face on each toe; he remembers that,because after seeing the bonfire he had to walk through a pan of disinfectant in those boots.They’d said the disinfectant was poisonous and he shouldn’t splash, and then he was worriedthat the poison would get into the eyes of the ducks and hurt them. He’d been told the duckswere only like pictures, they weren’t real and had no feelings, but he didn’t quite believeit.
So let’s say five and a half, thinks Snowman. That’s about right.
The month could have been October, or else November; the leaves still turned colour then, andthey were orange and red. It was muddy underfoot – he must have been standing in a field –and it was drizzling. The bonfire was an enormous pile of cows and sheep and pigs. Their legsstuck out stiff and straight; gasoline had been poured onto them; the flames shot up and out,yellow and white and red and orange, and a smell of charred flesh filled the air. It was likethe barbecue in the backyard when his father cooked things but a lot stronger, and mixed inwith it was a gas-station smell, and the odour of burning hair.
Jimmy knew what burning hair smelled like because he’d cut off some of his own hair with themanicure scissors and set fire to it with his mother’s cigarette lighter. The hair hadfrizzled up, squiggling like a clutch of tiny black worms, so he’d cut off some more and doneit again. By the time he was caught, his hair was ragged all along the front. When accusedhe’d said it was an experiment.
His father had laughed then, but his mother hadn’t. At least (his father said) Jimmy’d hadthe good sense to cut the hair off before torching it. His mother said it was lucky he hadn’tburnt the house down. Then they’d had an argument about the cigarette lighter, which wouldn’thave been there (said his father) if his mother didn’t smoke. His mother said that allchildren were arsonists at heart, and if not for the lighter he’d have used matches.
Once the fight got going Jimmy felt relieved, because he’d known then that he wouldn’t bepunished. All he had to do was say nothing and pretty soon they’d forget why they’d startedarguing in the first place. But he also felt guilty, because look what he’d made them do. Heknew it would end with a door being slammed. He scrunched down lower and lower in his chairwith the words whizzing back and forth over his head, and finally there was the bang of thedoor – his mother this time – and the wind that came with it. There was always a wind whenthe door got slammed, a small puff – whuff! – right in his ears.
“Never mind, old buddy,” said his father. “Women always get hot under the collar. She’llcool down. Let’s have some ice cream.” So that’s what they did, they had Raspberry Ripple inthe cereal bowls with the blue and red birds on them that were handmade in Mexico so youshouldn’t put them in the dishwasher, and Jimmy ate his all up to show his father thateverything was okay.
Women, and what went on under their collars. Hotness and coldness, coming and going in thestrange musky flowery variable-weather country inside their clothes – mysterious, important,uncontrollable.
That was his father’s take on things. But men’s body temperatures were never dealt with; theywere never even mentioned, not when he was little, except when his dad said, “Chill out.” Whyweren’t they? Why nothing about the hot collars of men? Those smooth, sharp-edged collars withtheir dark, sulphurous, bristling undersides. He could have used a few theories on that.
The next day his father took him to a haircut place where there was a picture of a pretty girlin the window with pouty lips and a black T-shirt pulled down off one shoulder, glaring outthrough smudgy charcoal eyes with a mean stare and her hair standing up stiff like quills.Inside, there was hair all over the tiled floor, in clumps and wisps; they were sweeping it upwith a push broom. First Jimmy had a black cape put on him, only it was more like a bib, andJimmy didn’t want that, because it was babyish. The haircut man laughed and said it wasn’t abib, because who ever heard of a baby with a black bib on? So it was okay; and then Jimmy got ashort all-over cut to even out the ragged places, which maybe was what he’d wanted in thefirst place – shorter hair. Then he had stuff out of a jar put on to make it spiky. It smelledlike orange peels. He smiled at himself in the mirror, then scowled, thrusting down hiseyebrows.
“Tough guy,” said the haircut man, nodding at Jimmy’s father. “What a tiger.” He whiskedJimmy’s cut-off hair onto the floor with all the other hair, then removed the black cape witha flourish and lifted Jimmy down.
At the bonfire Jimmy was anxious about the animals, because they were being burned and surelythat would hurt them. No, his father told him. The animals were dead. They were like steaks andsausages, only they still had their skins on.
And their heads, thought Jimmy. Steaks didn’t have heads. The heads made a difference: hethought he could see the animals looking at him reproachfully out of their burning eyes. Insome way all of this – the bonfire, the charred smell, but most of all the lit-up, sufferinganimals – was his fault, because he’d done nothing to rescue them. At the same time he foundthe bonfire a beautiful sight – luminous, like a Christmas tree, but a Christmas tree on fire.He hoped there might be an explosion, as on television.
Jimmy’s father was beside him, holding on to his hand. “Lift me up,” said Jimmy. His fatherassumed he wanted to be comforted, which he did, and picked him up and hugged him. But alsoJimmy wanted to see better.
“This is where it ends up,” said Jimmy’s father, not to Jimmy but to a man standing withthem. “Once things get going.” Jimmy’s father sounded angry; so did the man when heanswered.
“They say it was brought in on purpose.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Jimmy’s father.
“Can I have one of the cow horns?” said Jimmy. He didn’t see why they should be wasted. Hewanted to ask for two but that might be pushing it.
“No,” said his father. “Not this time, old buddy.” He patted Jimmy’s leg.
“Drive up the prices,” said the man. “Make a killing on their own stuff, that way.”
“It’s a killing all right,” said Jimmy’s father in a disgusted tone. “But it could’vebeen just a nutbar. Some cult thing, you never know.”
“Why not?” said Jimmy. Nobody else wanted the horns. But this time his father ignored him.“The question is, how did they do it?” he said. “I thought our people had us sealed up tightas a drum.”
“I thought they did too. We fork out enough. What were the guys doing? They’re not paid tosleep.”
“It could’ve been bribery,” said Jimmy’s father. “They’ll check out the bank transfers,though you’d have to be pretty dumb to stick that kind of money into a bank. Anyway, headswill roll.” “Fine-tooth comb, and I wouldn’t want to be them,” said the man. “Who comes infrom outside?” “Guys who repair things. Delivery vans.” “They should bring all that in-house.” “I hear that’s the plan,” said his father. “This bug is something new though.We’ve got the bioprint.” “Two can play at that game,” said the man. “Any number canplay,” said Jimmy’s father.
“Why were the cows and sheep on fire?” Jimmy asked his father the next day. They were havingbreakfast, all three of them together, so it must have been a Sunday. That was the day when hismother and his father were both there at breakfast.
Jimmy’s father was on his second cup of coffee. While he drank it, he was making notes on apage covered with numbers. “They had to be burned,” he said, “to keep it from spreading.”He didn’t look up; he was fooling with his pocket calculator, jotting with his pencil.
“What from spreading?” “The disease.” “What’s a disease?” “A disease is like when youhave a cough,” said his mother. “If I have a cough, will I be burned up?” “Most likely,”said his father, turning over the page. Jimmy was frightened by this because he’d had a coughthe week before. He might get another one at
any moment: already there was something sticking in his throat. He could see his hair on fire,not just a strand or two on a saucer, but all of it, still attached to his head. He didn’twant to be put in a heap with the cows and pigs. He began to cry.
“How many times do I have to tell you?” said his mother. “He’s too young.”
“Daddy’s a monster once again,” said Jimmy’s father. “It was a joke, pal. You know –joke. Ha ha.”
“He doesn’t understand those kinds of jokes.”
“Sure he does. Don’t you, Jimmy?”
“Yes,” said Jimmy, sniffling.
“Leave Daddy alone,” said his mother. “Daddy is thinking. That’s what they pay him for. Hedoesn’t have time for you right now.”
His father threw down the pencil. “Cripes, can’t you give it a rest?”
His mother stuck her cigarette into her half-empty coffee cup. “Come on, Jimmy, let’s go fora walk.” She hauled Jimmy up by one wrist, closed the back door with exaggerated care behindthem. She didn’t even put their coats on. No coats, no hats. She was in her dressing gown andslippers.
The sky was grey, the wind chilly; she walked head down, her hair blowing. Around the housethey went, over the soggy lawn at a double-quick pace, hand in hand. Jimmy felt he was beingdragged through deep water by something with an iron claw. He felt buffeted, as if everythingwas about to be wrenched apart and whirled away. At the same time he felt exhilarated. Hewatched his mother’s slippers: already they were stained with damp earth. He’d get in bigtrouble if he did that to his own slippers.
They slowed down, then stopped. Then his mother was talking to him in the quiet, nice-lady TV-teacher voice that meant she was furious. A disease, she said, was invisible, because it was sosmall. It could fly through the air or hide in the water, or on little boys’ dirty fingers,which was why you shouldn’t stick your fingers up your nose and then put them into your mouth,and why you should always wash your hands after you went to the bathroom, and why youshouldn’t wipe . . .
“I know,” said Jimmy. “Can I go inside? I’m cold.”
His mother acted as if she hadn’t heard him. A disease, she continued in that calm, stretchedvoice, a disease got into you and changed things inside you. It rearranged you, cell by cell,and that made the cells sick. And since you were all made up of tiny cells, working together tomake sure you stayed alive, and if enough of the cells got sick, then you . . .
“I could get a cough,” said Jimmy. “I could get a cough, right now!” He made a coughingsound.
“Oh, never mind,” said his mother. She often tried to explain things to him; then she gotdiscouraged. These were the worst moments, for both of them. He resisted her, he pretended hedidn’t understand even when he did, he acted stupid, but he didn’t want her to give up onhim. He wanted her to be brave, to try her best with him, to hammer away at the wall he’d putup against her, to keep on going.
“I want to hear about the tiny cells,” he said, whining as much as he dared. “I want to!”
“Not today,” she said. “Let’s just go in.”
Jimmy’s father worked for OrganInc Farms. He was a genographer, one of the best in the field.He’d done some of the key studies on mapping the proteonome when he was still a post-grad, andthen he’d helped engineer the Methuselah Mouse as part of Operation Immortality. After that,at OrganInc Farms, he’d been one of the foremost architects of the pigoon project, along witha team of transplant experts and the microbiologists who were splicing against infections.Pigoon was only a nickname: the official name was sus multiorganifer. But pigoon was what
everyone said. Sometimes they said Organ-Oink Farms, but not as often. It wasn’t really a farmanyway, not like the farms in pictures.
The goal of the pigoon project was to grow an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs in atransgenic knockout pig host – organs that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejection, butwould also be able to fend off attacks by opportunistic microbes and viruses, of which therewere more strains every year. A rapid-maturity gene was spliced in so the pigoon kidneys andlivers and hearts would be ready sooner, and now they were perfecting a pigoon that could growfive or six kidneys at a time. Such a host animal could be reaped of its extra kidneys; then,rather than being destroyed, it could keep on living and grow more organs, much as a lobstercould grow another claw to replace a missing one. That would be less wasteful, as it took a lotof food and care to grow a pigoon. A great deal of investment money had gone into OrganIncFarms.
All of this was explained to Jimmy when he was old enough.
Old enough, Snowman thinks as he scratches himself, around but not on top of the insect bites.Such a dumb concept. Old enough for what? To drink, to fuck, to know better? What fathead wasin charge of making those decisions? For example, Snowman himself isn’t old enough for this,this – what can it be called? This situation. He’ll never be old enough, no sane human beingcould ever . . .
Each one of us must tread the path laid out before him, or her, says the voice in his head, a
man’s this time, the style bogus guru, and each path is unique. It is not the nature of the
path itself that should concern the seeker, but the grace and strength and patience with which
... each and every one of us follows the sometimes challenging
“Stuff it,” says Snowman. Some cheap do-it-yourself enlightenment handbook, Nirvana forhalfwits. Though he has the nagging feeling that he may well have written this gem himself.
In happier days, naturally. Oh, so much happier.
The pigoon organs could be customized, using cells from individual human donors, and the organswere frozen until needed. It was much cheaper than getting yourself cloned for spare parts – afew wrinkles left to be ironed out there, as Jimmy’s dad used to say – or keeping a for-harvest child or two stashed away in some illegal baby orchard. In the OrganInc brochures andpromotional materials, glossy and discreetly worded, stress was laid on the efficacy andcomparative health benefits of the pigoon procedure. Also, to set the queasy at ease, it wasclaimed that none of the defunct pigoons ended up as bacon and sausages: no one would want toeat an animal whose cells might be identical with at least some of their own.
Still, as time went on and the coastal aquifers turned salty and the northern permafrost meltedand the vast tundra bubbled with methane, and the drought in the midcontinental plains regionswent on and on, and the Asian steppes turned to sand dunes, and meat became harder to come by,some people had their doubts. Within OrganInc Farms itself it was noticeable how often backbacon and ham sandwiches and pork pies turned up on the staff café menu. André’s Bistro wasthe official name of the café, but the regulars called it Grunts. When Jimmy had lunch therewith his father, as he did when his mother was feeling harried, the men and women at nearbytables would make jokes in bad taste.
“Pigoon pie again,” they would say. “Pigoon pancakes, pigoon popcorn. Come on, Jimmy, eatup!” This would upset Jimmy; he was confused about who should be allowed to eat what. Hedidn’t want to eat a pigoon, because he thought of the pigoons as creatures much like himself.Neither he nor they had a lot of say in what was going on.
“Don’t pay any attention to them, sweetheart,” said Ramona. “They’re only teasing, youknow?” Ramona was one of his dad’s lab technicians. She often ate lunch with the two of them,him and his dad. She was young, younger than his father and even his mother; she lookedsomething like the picture of the girl in the haircut man’s window, she had the same sort ofpuffed-out mouth, and big eyes like that, big and smudgy. But she smiled a lot, and she didn’thave her hair in quills. Her hair was soft and dark. Jimmy’s mother’s hair was what she
. (“Not dirty enough,” said his father. “Hey! Joke. Joke. Don’therself called dirty blonde
Ramona would always have a salad. “How’s Sharon doing?” she would say to Jimmy’s father,looking at him with her eyes wide and solemn. Sharon was Jimmy’s mother.
“Not so hot,” Jimmy’s father would say.
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
“It’s a problem. I’m getting worried.”
Jimmy watched Ramona eat. She took very small bites, and managed to chew up the lettuce withoutcrunching. The raw carrots too. That was amazing, as if she could liquefy those hard, crispfoods and suck them into herself, like an alien mosquito creature on DVD.
“Maybe she should, I don’t know, see someone?” Ramona’s eyebrows lifted in concern. She hadmauve powder on her eyelids, a little too much; it made them crinkly. “They can do all sortsof things, there’s so many new pills . . .” Ramona was supposed to be a tech genius but shetalked like a shower-gel babe in an ad. She wasn’t stupid, said Jimmy’s dad, she just didn’twant to put her neuron power into long sentences. There were a lot of people like that atOrganInc, and not all of them were women. It was because they were numbers people, not wordpeople, said Jimmy’s father. Jimmy already knew that he himself was not a numbers person.“Don’t think I haven’t suggested it, I asked around, found the top guy, made theappointment, but she wouldn’t go,” said Jimmy’s father, looking down at the table. “She’sgot her own ideas.”
“It’s such a shame, a waste. I mean, she was so smart!”
“Oh, she’s still smart enough,” said Jimmy’s father. “She’s got smart coming out of her
“But she used to be so, you know . . .”
Ramona’s fork would slide out of her fingers, and the two of them would stare at each other asif searching for the perfect adjective to describe what Jimmy’s mother used to be. Thenthey’d notice Jimmy listening, and beam their attention down on him like extraterrestrialrays. Way too bright.
“So, Jimmy sweetheart, how’s it going at school?”
“Eat up, old buddy, eat the crusts, put some hair on your chest!”
“Can I go look at the pigoons?” Jimmy would say.
The pigoons were much bigger and fatter than ordinary pigs, to leave room for all of the extraorgans. They were kept in special buildings, heavily secured: the kidnapping of a pigoon andits finely honed genetic material by a rival outfit would have been a disaster. When Jimmy wentin to visit the pigoons he had to put on a biosuit that was too big for him, and wear a facemask, and wash his hands first with disinfectant soap. He especially liked the small pigoons,twelve to a sow and lined up in a row, guzzling milk. Pigoonlets. They were cute. But theadults were slightly frightening, with their runny noses and tiny, white-lashed pink eyes. Theyglanced up at him as if they saw him, really saw him, and might have plans for him later.