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There wasn’t anything outwardly wrong with the child who appeared in our room that day. Well, except for the fact that we couldn’t quite tell if it was a boy or a girl. Her teeth and nails were shiny and clean, his jacket pressed, if snug. This was before he, or she, was removed from the jacket, like all of us once were from ours. They let us see it first, though, along with the way, poking out from the ends of the sleeves, were all ten fingers, just like at the ends of the feet, the same number of toes. Everything seemed fine as a fiddle, right at the first, if you didn’t count the boy/girl thing, which none of us did. There was lots of ambiguity by then, and because we were known by our numbers, it didn’t much matter, one way or another, although I certainly knew my which from my what. I was clear as could be about that.
About the new child, though, ok, we might have noticed an unusual odor. Not already living and bathing with us, using our soap and wearing our smocks, this child did not quite smell like us yet, or I should say of us. That would have been a sign – looking back, there were plenty of signs. But of course it is exciting, someone new like that. We weren’t looking for signs at the start.
The evens slept on the right side of the room and the odds on the left. That was the way it was done. In addition to our bed, we had, each one of us, our own small storage chest for our things. The ones on the right had their chests to the right of their beds; the ones on the left, to the left.
I was an even, so things came easily to me, being, as I was, ever on the right.
Here’s what we had for our things in our chests: one little gray smock to wear in the day and one little gray smock for the night, something for cleaning our teeth and something for drying our face once we had washed it with our bar of soap, a jar to keep reminders in, and the thing we were given for the parts of us that were covered. What I had, in addition, was this little brush that had the softest bristles, and I kept it on the right side of the top drawer of my chest, even though they didn’t let us have hair. Hair was all about tangles and lice, they said.
What’s lice? we said.
Ha ha, they said.
But that was the first thing we really did notice – how the new child had something like what might have been hair, or a kind of yellow fuzz that glistened, or gleamed, in the light. But how could this possibly be? Rules, we knew, were rules. It’s not that they didn’t do what they could. They took the child, just like they took us, into the room where they did what they did and sent him, or her, back, smooth at the top like a spoon or an egg, which gave us all what might have been a kind of vindication. Ha ha, we thought, and rubbed our own baldness, not without fondness. No one gets hair.
But then, a collective, quiet gasp: the fuzz was back.
You wouldn’t think it could happen so fast, but it did. They took it off and back it came, as if with a will of its own.
Looking at the fuzz, I didn’t quite know how to feel, but one thing I knew, I knew about my brush. What wouldn’t this new child give to get his, or her, hands on my brush. And even though I knew this to be an uncharitable thought, unworthy of me or the rest of us, I clung all the more stubbornly to it, with what might have been said to be ferocity that I would only come to understand in the aftermath of what was going to happen. It wasn’t going to happen all at once, but it was going to happen. And when it did, watch out. That’s when the real fun starts.
Well, not fun, exactly. That’s just an expression we used.
The next thing we noticed remains inexplicable, even to this day. Or maybe it all really was because of the fuzz – that was the only thing we could think, how it just kept coming back to glisten, or gleam, on her, or his, head, no matter how many times they took her, or him, into the room where they did what they did to remove the one from the other. During the time they were trying to resolve this, they kept the new child in the place where new children go to get used to things as they are now, as well as to be removed of what’s left of their things – remainders and habits and whatnot. Just like with hair, no one gets those.
For a while, it was ok – the new child in the new child place, joining us in our lessons and chores, but not really co-mingling with us, if you know what I mean. We liked taking our time. But when it came to what was going to happen, time was not then and never would be on our side. Like the fuzz on the top of the new child’s head, you can only try so many times, and then you let what is be: the head glistens – ok, gleams – the child co-mingles.
They brought the child to us just the same as always. Except for the head, all was like us – the teeth, the toes, our little gray smocks. But – and it’s hard to say this even now – they gave the child to us with a letter, not a number.
And again, the collective, quiet gasp: what were we to do with a letter, and an M at that – not a valley, but a mountain. And maybe we didn’t know much, but we knew for mountains. What could they have been thinking, we thought?
After the gasp, a shuffling of feet. There weren’t so many of us, really – we weren’t crowded, per se. There was plenty of space on both right and left. But a letter wasn’t even and it wasn’t odd, so it wouldn’t really do to put M here or there. Along with the shuffling of feet, a certain gravitation was, of course, only natural – evens to the right, odds to the left – we were standing our ground. But even as we did this, we could see that we were leaving M all alone in the middle. Anyone could see this – I could see this.
M’s bed was in the doorway, along with M’s chest. We didn’t even know yet to wonder what was in it. All we were wondering was where M was going to put it.
Being an even, I was working my way up to saying something about how people before us used letters for numbers, so maybe start there, when all at once – and sure, we should have seen this coming, too – M started to push the bed all the way to the far end of the room and right beneath our one and only window. By now, one thing was sure: no one wanted M on the side that was theirs, but no one wanted M, either, to have that window, so we found ourselves at what we did not know yet to call an impasse. Beneath that solitary window, M’s fuzz gleamed. It was the gleaming, I think, that stopped us from doing whatever we were going to do to keep M from having the window. Most of our own heads were hurting by now. This had all been so disturbing. And of course there was the matter of the chest.
So here’s what happened next: M shoved M’s chest to the foot of M’s bed – neither on the right, nor on the left – and then M did another thing we’ll never forget: M threw himself, or herself, right on top of that bed in the middle of the day and kicked up M’s legs and laughed, or chortled.
Some of us thought the one, and some of us thought the other, but those of us who thought it was a chortle saw clearly how things were going to be: you weren’t supposed to lie on your bed in the middle of the day, rumpling the covers, undoing its neatness. Rules were rules. This was so much on most of our minds that we missed the pure pleasure of it. We didn’t even think to consider the source of M’s pleasure. We didn’t even quite know how to call it pleasure.
Now that M was among us, it was clear soon enough M still smelled of something that wasn’t us. One of us thought it was an earthy smell and another a flowery smell and another a yeasty smell, and so forth, as if any of us knew what such smells really were. My own opinion was we liked the words of it – the word for yeast, the word for flower, the word for earth. We didn’t know – how could we know? – what M really smelled of. M smelled of out there was all we could know.
Naturally, because of the gleam of the fuzz on the top of M’s head, we were curious. All of us felt this. We didn’t want to say so, but we felt our curiosity somewhere in our bodies. We wanted to touch it, the fuzz, but that’s not where what we felt was in our bodies, not where the fuzz was, on the top of the head, but somewhere else.
The thing about M being right in the middle of the room like that, between the odds and the evens, he, or she, not right away, but over time, began to exert a kind of pull on us. It was subtle, right at first, but grew stronger as time passed, an equal pull on all of us, both right and left. No one wanted to talk about it, but soon enough, since we were all feeling it, the curiosity thing, it wasn’t that hard to understand what came next. And of course, it was like, the longer you had it, the stronger it got, until you just had to do it. For some of us, it got pretty strong all at once, but the rest of use weren’t far behind. Pretty soon, we all had to do it. And pretty soon, all of us were.
At first, we pretended we weren’t. During the day, everything was just the same, or same enough. But at night, the quiet pattering of feet, from the right side, from the left side, all the way down to the end of the room where the gold fuzz gleamed in the moon, or what we called the moon, and all the way back.
Being an even, and so on the right, I was one of the last, or maybe even the last one of all. I guess no one knows. It wasn’t that my curiosity was less than the others’, but rules were rules. You weren’t supposed to do it, so I didn’t. I held out as long as I could. But the thing is, you listen long enough to the back-and-forth pattering of feet – back and forth, back and forth – and one night, when it stops – when you’re the last and only one – you can’t really stop yourself. No one could, and neither could I.
So that’s when I got up to look. I just shook the sheet off my little bed and put my own feet to the floor, which, it being night, was cool and smooth as ice as I walked all the way down to the end of the room where there, in the middle of the bed, was M, absent our little gray smock and oh so very pale in the light of the moon, or what we called the moon, just as I’d imagined, but not at all as I’d imagined either. And it wasn’t his boy-ness or her girl-ness either, and not either her not-boy and not-girl-ness. We were plenty used to that by now. It was, instead, his, or her, whiteness – bone white, chalk white, snow white, blanched white – topped off with that little gleam of gold.
I don’t know how to tell you what it felt like. Most, if not all, of the others already knew by now, so by the time I was finding out, we were almost to the end anyway. I do know that touching that fuzz was unlike touching anything else in the world I have ever touched, and even as I touched it, I also knew that it would be the last time in my life I would feel such a thing. Looking at M, I could tell how depleted he, or she, was from all that touching. And sure, maybe if I’d waited. I could have waited. Everyone else had had their turn, but what would it have hurt me to wait a little more?
I was never among those who thought “chortled,” but looking at M now – approaching this all-white and golden gleaming thing in the not at all neat anymore bed at the end of the room where the window was, I remembered the sound of M’s laughter the first time M lay on that bed, rumpling the covers in front of everyone and in the middle of the day, but not rumpled like this – all stained and smelly – rumpled different. Now I knew to wonder what might have been the joy of it, of M, that first time, on M’s bed: maybe it was M’s first bed, maybe M was happy just to be among us. Happy, like pleasure, was not a word we knew to think yet, or not me. But I would soon enough, of course, because I was almost to that bed now, I was almost already touching M’s fuzz.
And then, like that, it was done.
After M was gone and they found out what we did, they let us have hair, but that’s all they let us have. That’s how we found out what tangles and lice were. That’s how we learned you can only know happiness by what happiness is not. It works like this sometimes, rules being rules. So it wasn’t going to be long now before we knew exactly what M smelled of.
Looking back, I think the hardest thing to give up was not the bed and not the chest, and not even my dear useless soft-bristled brush, but the little gray smocks they made us wear, the one for day, the one for night, covering the parts of our bodies we didn’t yet know to keep covered. That was the first thing we learned, but of course not the last, after they sent us away, stripping us of everything, down to our numbers.