4,800 Words

I was born with a tongue, but the others were not.

This is how it is: We who live on the edge of the Heap are different. Harper’s arms are no more than nimble flippers that sprout exposed bone. Zora’s skin blisters from the sunlight, while Ernest cannot raise his medicine ball sized head—he only lolls it. They cannot of course talk, so I talk for them, and I talk to them. We bronzer children of the golden class are a motley litter of rejects, everyone knows. So kilometers upon kilometers away from the outer city, we scrounge the Heap in contractual service of Sydney’s New Waste Strategies. Because nobody but us—and those like us—will do it. Digging into the Heap, which is really many heaps, we yank out its treasures and sort them accordingly: opaque plastics are ground, heated and pelletized; rare metals are stripped from the electronic innards of people’s junk devices; yuck organics are thrust into the 3D-er, which spits out scaffolds for auto-luminescent creepers to grow upon in parks far, far away from here; but shimmering finds like a cockatoo mask or a dented wind-up Tasmanian devil we keep for ourselves. We are free to do so.

Call me Eudora. It is a name selected 13 years ago by my carer, Naguib, from one of the spines of his flaking paperbacks that he keeps in chest-high piles in his shack—our shack. It was what caught his eye when two shove-happy bodyguards dropped my squirming infant body into his arms. Naguib said that Eudora would be ideal for me because it means “good gift,” and the author whose name I would share knew to tell stories True and isn’t that the best thing? To tell stories True? To not shy from telling people what is what …? It is what I try to do.

Our Naguib minds us, he says, because he has a “heart” unlike the rest of the world, unlike the goldens who flit about in the City and Eastern suburbs.

“Everything is sport for them,” he says when on a rant after viewing news on the tablet, or having some fresh conversation with the New Waste Strategies people, or seeing young goldens performing wheelies when pissed and visiting the Heap to have a peek at their creations: our kind. “Deviant liaisons in underground clubs with misshapen silvers or incapable bronzers, daring to go full-term just to see what it might look like, just because! It’s the new thing, a dare: couple with someone beneath you, allow a disgusting thing to grow in you! Hilarious. But then there is a bronzer child to get rid of when he or she comes out of the belly. What to do now? Just chuck it to the Scavenger Man, Naguib, he’ll not turn a defected infant away—he could turn nothing away, he lives in the Heap! Later, we can have a bet at whose children have lived the longest and have a gape at our own faces on failed bodies. What great sports there are for goldens. What fun.”

After these rages, he backs into a corner, droops over a book and reads. Usually, it is Steinbeck, though on occasion it is Morrison: only specific authors for specific ailments, he has said. He does not acknowledge us again until he is made right by the doing of it.

But one day, I have a notion and wedge into his rage. “‘Sport’ like a competition between the goldens, Naguib?”

He does not look up from East of Eden. “Aye, my Eudora.  Competition between the goldens about you lot. Foul, is it not?”

I pause to consider the synonyms and then their implications. “Is it foul because we are foul?” I swallow the grit from the morning dust storm. “Because we are wrong and sick and—”

“Ridiculous,” he hisses, waving my words away. “It is foul because goldens are without conscience and do not take responsibility for their actions or inactions. Why should they have to, they feel. They’ve lived protected in the east, by the water. It is foul because the level of care they have taken with their bodies—and been at liberty to indulge in—for generations has been better than what they would afford to silvers. The silvers lived out west and in the south—nearest to Hazchem Site 0. And so now, the goldens and silvers are fundamentally different, both outside and in. Neither see you all as anything worthy of care but I do. I’ll keep you all safe, especially from the likes of goldens.” Naguib flicks his eyes at the others.

Ernest bats at a chain of clothes’ pegs dangling over him, while wheeze-breathing from his always-wet lungs. Zora whimpers over the dolly that Harper pokes at with her fleshy flippers. The two are signing at each other in a fury.

“You cannot imagine how many years I’ve been tending to those like your brother and sisters. Years, Eudora. You are my little innocents.”

We are not permitted tablets or vision feeds, and we do not go to the city, ever. He is our only teacher and I crave more, so I lean in towards him, the distance for appropriate secret keeping and I breathe, “If it is a competition between them over us, Naguib, who is winning?”

Naguib looks to me over his book, his eyebrows as dark as a line of a fat crayon mashed onto butcher paper, “Read a book to the children,” he grumbles, returning to his incredible, magnificent drooping. “Something fanciful. Concern yourself with giving them stories and nothing else.”

Lately, I have noticed how I’ve cared less and less for rules, and so after dinner, after Naguib kisses the tops of all of our heads, and after he warns us to stay inside because a mob of undercutters have been squabbling with people in the area, and he finally leaves the shack to discuss business propositions with our neighbor, I lift one of Naguib’s mangled but working tablets onto my lap.

It is a wrong thing to do. It has been strictly forbidden, but I push the power on and watch as a faded image shudders into view. It is an input box, waiting for my command.

I do searches as Harper cuddles into me, back to back, whilst playing with a doll. I bring the tablet in closer and discover sites erected by goldens posting mobile vids and pics of their bronzer offspring. Who has made the most hellish brood? They ask in loud sentences constructed out of purposeful grammatical wonk. Whose squirmer has lived the longest? Whose looks the most unsullied by the errant genes racing through the lower goldens and most of the silver class individuals? Whose thing looks least like the disgusting rubbish they are on the inside?

Whose thing?

Which thing?

Me.

It is me who has won the longest-lived category, and I am startled that anyone knows I exist besides my family and our neighbors here. Something in me wants to celebrate. I do not understand why I feel so pleased at being a winner, but I must say that the others in the Heap have always said that I am the wrong one: flat, unforgiving in nature, brittle and sharp-humored, an old, pointless book. I am not right, I just look right because I have all my parts and seem almost golden on the outside, but inside my brain, what makes me tick, must be tangled and malfunctioning. But people somewhere consider me a winner, and my cheeks warm at the thought. And so while Ernest, who is on his back next to me, kicks his feet up at an uncoiled cord hanging from the ceiling, I allow myself to celebrate fractionally. Because I am thought almost worthy.

Eudora is a winner. Born with all her parts. Still living.

I look out the window to the plasmification plant puffing away in the distance, in the haze over the tops of the heaps and smile.

An ID image of me from when I was younger fills the panel.  Besides it I find the proud face of my mother, captioned Vera Ryde. She has clear, unknowable eyes, like the eyes of a pale cavefish I saw in a proper encyclopedia, the sort of eyes that seem to have never seen the light of day. Only she has my thick black hair or, I suppose, I have hers. I think about who she could be, given what Naguib has told me of the goldens, and I stop. Instead I try—as respectfully as I can, just for a little while—to crush Naguib’s hot words into tidy, little blocks, akin to the aluminum can cubes the compactor belches out to be carried away by workers and made into something else.

I am about to press the power button. I want to take the children out for a walk, so that I can raise my chin at other bronzers, knowing that I am better but Naguib’s message box is flashing. If he did not relay to me the particulars of the competition, I am curious as to what else he might not have explained to me.

I do another bad thing because it is hard to live up to my name.

I tap Naguib’s message box open. The reveal is dull stuff, indeed: requests for location services, schedules for meetings with zero-waste advocates. But I scroll down and a message winks at me. Dated six weeks before, a message from Miss Ryde’s family indicates to Naguib that she is ill, and they request he deliver me to her staff in Sydney to be tested for a possible bone marrow match. Not only do I seem unadulterated from my bronzer parentage, in their estimation, I might also have a certain resistance to autoimmune diseases from my scrounging the Heap for so many years. Pig whipworm, bountiful gut microbiota, good cells, you know?  They say I might be sturdier than her and I must help her because I would not be here without her having had an unsanctioned, sly union with a silver. She is valuable! Understand that they do not so much as blurt this as suggest it in the crisp, tight-mouthed language of goldens declaring how things must be to those below them rather than the sharp, lowercased boasts between them on the message boards. But I can read between the lines because Naguib has taught me everything about squeezing information from words, which are all we have. About taking everything you can from even the most rejected thing. I see that they have cut a message under their kind words and have been unsubtle about their request: exchange Eudora for future economic support or keep Eudora and certain business arrangements with Sydney New Waste Management Strategies and their affiliates could be dissolved.

Naguib sent a single reply: No.

I do not know what to think or what to do and instead perform a search for the children: Zora, Harper, as well as young Ernest. No one actively seeks them but there is information. It is projected by Ernest’s mother that he will not live past three, but should he, she will secure the winning of her social club’s pot, which is something in her book. Ernest just turned two. Isn’t it stunning how a few surgeries could prolong his life, she types? And Zora’s mother informs the board that her brood tends not to live past seven years of age, but that she is an adrenaline addict and cannot stop pushing her body to the max to see what other sorts of glorious bronzer wrecks she can create. She is quite proud of the angularity of her creations’ bones and their tissue-thin, blistering skin. She is pregnant even now with number five, and if it is a very promising wreck of a human, she may secure an attendant to care for it so she can hire it out at parties.

Naguib’s tablet back goes back into its port, and I stare at its stupid rectangularity.

I do not understand why the learning of information can hurt.

§

Last night, when I was fetching water outside and a dust storm brewed in the West, a bronzer boy from the East Heaps leapt out of the dark and shoved me into the side of one of our bins. With his too large forehead he leaned into me and asked if I thought I was superior to him, better than the rest of them? He did not wait for an answer but gripped my shoulders with his claws and told me that despite my words, despite looking like a golden, despite my ability to find treasures, I was just a dumb rat worthy of drowning, just a rat crawling around the Heap like the rest of them. Someone would teach me a lesson soon, the undercutters maybe. I have been taunted before but never confronted in this manner. It was as if each year I did not succumb to some illness and expire, others would loathe me more. So because I understood the boy’s anger and I knew he would eventually, if not then, soon, strangle me, and because I did not prefer being touched against my wishes, I stabbed him in the soft spot where his neck and face meet. I did so with a fork from my pocket, leftover from Zora’s tea party utensil set. After he slumped away, I returned to the others inside, picking up the bucket of water. I had not spilt it but felt sloshed myself, rather like I do now.

In the later afternoon I prepare the tub for the little ones without my usual focus, only half-trying to tell them a story as I unkink everything I thought I understood in my mind.

“A long time ago there was a monster that would blow into the Heap when red dust storms rolled in,” I explained, lowering each of them into the warm suds. “The goldens thought it was a lost mega fauna, galloping in from the interior but they weren’t especially confident of this theory and stood unsure and frightened when it would approach. They let it sniff around the rubbish collection centres of the western suburbs, but then it began pulling bronzers from the Heap for its brekkie. The monster was something new, not seen before and never known. It was made from rock and dirt on the inside but rubbish on its outside with twisted car panels like armor segmenting it. It was frightful and it swaggered, knowing its power to scare others. Usually, it would just eat bronzers but sometimes, because it was lonesome and wanted to play, the monster would curse bronzers instead. It would bend down, look into their eyes and with rotting breath; it would whisper the measurements of their hearts and the contents of their character. After hearing what the monster said they were, they could never be any better or do anything other than what the monster had said. What a curse! And do you know what happened then …?”

Zora taps the encased communicator tablet affixed to the shack’s wall, placed so thoughtfully by Naguib: “It needs its mom, yes, Eudora? If its mom came and told it to stop, it would. Its mom could even curse it into leaving everyone alone—moms are supposed to make their kids right.”

Harper disagrees, shaking her head. She stands to rub her flipper on the communicator, soapsuds skidding down her twisted back: “Stupidest of stupid ideas, Zora Stupidface. It is lonely and wants to play but it doesn’t know how to play proper-like. Someone must come and show it how to play, and then everything will be OK. I am right! Confirm, Eudora.”

“The both of you are wrong.” I laugh, squirting them with a mermaid squeeze-toy. “If you’d worked together, perhaps you would’ve figured out the solution. The monster is minus a heart—only cold shadows knocked around in its chest—that is why it ate so many bronzers. It craved hearts, sort of like how Ernest cannot slurp down enough tinned peaches because he loves them so much. So a brave bronzer marched to the monster and pointed to the city, where one can find everything, and said ‘I will take you to the city to find a golden who can give you want you want.’ And that is just what they did and no bronzer was ever eaten again.”

Zora crinkled her face and punched the communicator: “But what happened after that to the monster and the bronzer?”

Harper flicked Zora’s hand out of the way and frowned: “Are they still there looking for a heart for the monster? Even now?”

“Maybe. I don’t exactly know,” I say, washing Zora’s underarm. Always I have had to be gentle with her skin.

Harper was dissatisfied: “You are meant to know when you tell us stories. You are knowing less and less as you get older, Eudora.”

Zora winds her way back to the communicator: “You will have to find out. I don’t like not knowing the end of stories.”

I nod in agreement. Zora and Harper are like me; we all must know the endings of things. We are thirsty for it. As I dunk my brother and sisters’ limbs into the water, I turn my scowl on the inside, so as not to make them think I am sour with them because it isn’t them who I am growing angry at.

§

The thing is, because I was born with a tongue and the others were not, it is assumed I divulge all my thoughts. It is assumed that I want nothing but to give others the truth.

The assumption is false but I have not dissuaded people from it.

§

On the morning Naguib is set to leave the Heap for Sydney, when he is organizing his supplies for a new project negotiation, I work on suggesting that I am aware of nothing and am not considering doing Something he would likely disown me for.

“If you have a surplus of time, Naguib, could you bring us an extra book?”

“I do not like bringing things into the Heap, Eudora. We can get everything we need here.” He pats his breast pocket and smoothens down his shirt, ensuring everything is where it is meant to be. Naguib smiles. “Who would I be then, if I felt one thing but did another?”

I nod without a smile and look around for a place to put my eyes, anywhere that is not Naguib’s understanding face that has put up with the foulness of other people for years.

“But I might visit a resale shop to see if they’ve any editions they cannot sell that would be coming our way. Help them out, you know?”

“We would be thankful, Naguib.” I am as deceitful as the air here, seemingly OK but air that is truly filmy and wrong from the gases curling up from the open waste pit at the Heap’s edge. I do not know what to say to him.

“You are getting so much older. I will have to find something more appropriate for you to read. I’m not used to children your age, but no matter … you are getting older and that is a good thing.”

He grinds his teeth absentmindedly. He would like to sit and read, rather than sort all these problems out all the time, but instead of going to the corner to droop, he swallows the rest of his instant coffee and exits the shack, off to visit the other independent contractors with the objective of banding together for a unified force of re-purposers.

Ernest and I are in the clearing in front of our shack, trying to catch a worm, when the undercutters find us. As if they were waiting for us to be left alone.

“Golden Girl, Golden Girl!” they call. One slithers his tongues at me, but it is no bother: they look like the pirates in illustrations from Ernest’s adventure books and are as flat as. I am not frightened. “You found a sort of plant the size of your brother’s head? It moves on its own and blooms at night? Woulda been picked-up near—” The finder consults his tablet which hangs from his neck off a thick shoe cord. His business associate looks on with animal interest, like he is watching only because we’re moving, all the while sinking his teeth into a charred rib of some unrecognizable thing. “Near Liverpool Heap …? Big money for its return, Golden Girl, because get this: some golden got the thing for his littlie during a trip to Borneo or something—managed to sneak it in to the country but then his girlfriend chucks it. Thing freaked her out.” He leans in because people always lean in when they want something from you. “You help us out?”

“A plant of that nature would be a find,” I acknowledge. I plant my flimsy boot into a nearby pile of take-away food cartons with frilly designs to see them cave in, for the power of it.

He is careful in his wording and presses, “So you haven’t seen it then?”

I am more careful. “It is unfortunate you are having such a trial, locating these items all the time, but I cannot be of help to you,” I say.

The talking one nods, thoughtful, and looks out at the heaps as if surmising what to do next. The chugging from the compactor far off is muted. The sky over the Heap is a rancid orange but still. No one but us is around. “We don’t always have—how did you say it?—a trial with finding things. Why would you go and say a thing like that?”

“From my observations—”

“Your observations?” He grins.

“Yes, from my observations you are having an increasingly difficult time locating items in the Heap. It would trouble me if I were in your position. In fact, I’d consider undertaking some new occupation—at least, if I were you and were concerned about success.”

“Huh,” says the talking one, as if veritably dumbfounded though he is not; he is playacting as grown-ups often do for children. I blink at his reaction and he looks over to his partner. “Free advice is what she is giving us. Isn’t that considerate of her?”

The rib-eating one takes a long lick of the bone, flicks his eyes at Ernest at my feet and flips the bone to him as if he is doing Ernest an immense favor. I snatch it away, tossing the filthy think back into his face. He laughs. “Well, Locky, I am reminded of a previous encounter with this one. Remember how she and her twisted brother and sisters found that miniature generator contraption? Sold it? Even after you told her we was looking for it? Would do anything for it? Pay or barter a good deal to secure it?”

The talking one nods in such a way that I finally understand the word “solemnity.” “You alone, girl?”

I gesture to Ernest and then vaguely towards the shack. “I am never alone.”

“That’s as good as alone. As good as.” The rib-eater smiles. He scratches at his fuzzy chin. “I reckon we do a safety check in the shack. We could do a safety check on her, too.”

I coil on the inside. I will not have my home prodded by the likes of these scroungers.

The talking one must see something in my face because finally, he decides and says, “Ahh, leave her be. She’s still just a kid. If she’d found it, she’d be within her rights not to sell it to us. She could sell it to the goldens herself, make a small killing, buy one of her sisters some more time from a real doc. Anyway, we should try Mrs. Stanmore. Her brood finds all sorts of things.”

Rib-eating one shrugs, then pets my hair and smiles. “What you need is to get dirty like the rest of us, Golden Girl. As soon as you grow up, you come find me. We could all make a life together.”

“You are boring me,” I say, scooping up Ernest into my arms. “Good luck in all endeavors away from my home. Do not fall into the open pit on your way out.” To the talking one I nod, then turn to return to the shelter, supporting Ernest’s head on my shoulder.

“Deep down you like me, Golden Girl. I’ll wait for you and I may even buy you one day, when your father gets desperate enough!” calls the rib-eating one.

Inside, I crouch down onto the corner play area where Harper and Zora are to prop Ernest up. They peek out of the window of a cardboard house we’ve made. The ambulatory plant I found last night scrambles down the roof of the cardboard house to stroke Ernest’s head. Ernest gurgles happily and the plant’s bulbous sacks vibrate in response.

“The little ones must keep you,” I say to my trophy, stroking the cerulean green vine it unfurls towards me. I swell with pride at having kept it away from the undercutters. “Anything to make them happy, plant, yes? Besides, I have other things I can sell.”

If I can best them …

§

That night, after Naguib has returned and has taken to bed, I move. I brush my lips against Ernest’s lovely head. I push my nose into Harper’s curly hair. I stroke the closed eyelids of gentle Zora. They are my family and my home: I murmur that I will come back soon. It is a promise and not a lie. Soon, soon.

“Eudora? Where are you planning on going?” Naguib has come out from behind his partition of books, blinking in the semi-darkness.

I stare at him. I do not want to tell him the truth because he will not let me go.

He rubs his eyes, then lowers himself onto the floor, sitting cross-legged. “Eudora, Mrs. Stanmore met me when I returned. She said,” he paused at this and looked down, “the undercutters came by here? But I thought you would have told me …”

I continue to stare at him. To confirm would mean that I’d omitted the truth and was a liar. Quite possibly I could prove to be something defective. He might imagine me as irretrievably tainted by my golden parent and loathe me forever.

“Where are you going?” he asks again.

“I’m going to the City to visit my mother’s people and dictate my own arrangement. Bone marrow and whatnot for credits with their best doctors for the children.”

Like an old picker, Naguib ambles up to a standing position. He turns to a pile and carefully unwedges a book. He places it in my hand. “There is some credit pressed in here, so keep it close. Understand you are the oldest child I have ever had. You’ve lived the longest and made me proud in so many respects. I want to keep you for as long as I can. Out there, in the City, there are monsters but—”

I do not tell him that I think I, too, am capable of monstrosities if it came to doing so for my brother and sisters. Instead, because I cannot stand the hot, wet feeling stinging inside my nostrils, I turn away from my Naguib and give him the cleanest version: “I must go. I will return with what I’ve said. It’s a promise.”

Naguib scoops me into him for a hug. It has been a long time because he is not an affectionate man. “You can try, my Eudora.”

“I’ll do better than try.” And I leave our home.

I understand that in the City you can’t properly spy the satellite clutter gleaming across the night sky in hazes of bright white.  Supposedly nothing flies there either, whereas here vultures and plastic bags drift along in giant glittering flocks.

No matter.  It is merely a place, like the here, which contains goldens who are thirsty for sport. For Harper, for Zora, for Ernest and for Naguib, I will see just how much goldens want to see me, how much my mother can provide, and then I will return with everything my family has ever needed.

This will happen because I am a treasure, and people will pay for what’s rare or amusing.

This will happen because I say it will, and I know how stories are supposed to work. I was the one born with a tongue and the others were not.

Mary Elizabeth Burroughs is a graduate of Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UC San Diego and University of Mississippi’s MFA program. A native of Florida, she now lives in Sydney, Australia where she teaches English to high school students. Her published fiction has appeared in Black Static, Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism, and Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars (Aqueduct Press).

2 Comments

  1. The Heap is an interesting landscape, I cannot recall ever reading a story about pickers before, castoffs picking through castoffs. Eudora and Nagiub are nicely constructed. I really do like the name Naguib, names are hard and it works really well.

  2. whassssssssssup nniceeeeeee storyyyyy

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