My children do not dream and neither do I. But that does not mean our sleep is sound. Sometimes they wake in the middle of the night, eyes wide and wet, grasping for a reason they stare into the darkness. I wish I could tell them it was a nightmare, that whatever they are feeling isn’t real, but instead I tell them to close their lids and lay lightly back into sleep, which they always do. My children are good at taking orders.
When the sun rises, my children all escape from their sheets and walk to the dining hall. It is not so much a hall as it is a room. We call it a hall because that is its name. There are other homes much bigger than this where the halls could be auditoriums but they are still called halls. I don’t question the names of things.
My children eat what they always eat, eight ounces of a soupy gray porridge. It is what I eat too. It is what I have always eaten. At sundown, my children will eat another eight ounces. It tastes neither good nor bad but occasionally reminds me of my own childhood.
Today I am reminded even more of my time as a child. When I open my notebook, I see I have been sent a correspondence. There is no sender and I wonder what encryption has allowed this message to leak past the censors. It reads:
To an old friend,
I remember when life was as sweet as nectar. Hope you still carry a bit of sweetness on your tongue.
I read the correspondence over again as I take a brimming spoonful of porridge, then close my notebook and rise from the head of the table. Whomever has sent the message knows my home well, I am sure of that.
It takes my children thirteen minutes to eat their morning meal, after which the orderlies clear the plates and tableware to the kitchen. This is my favorite time of the day. The way my children’s melodic march melds with the percussion of pewter clinking against the orderlies’ iron gears sounds something like music. No song is ever the same. I wouldn’t quite call it beauty but it is something close.
The home has four classrooms, one for each cluster. I can observe each cluster from my notebook but sometimes I accompany my children to their desks anyway. They do not speak—not to me nor to each other—but it feels nice just to walk amongst them. They file directly to their assigned seats and begin their studies.
On the days I do stay amongst them, I do not stay in the classroom long. There is no place for me there. Every child is slumped head down with stylus in hand, the light blue glow of the desk reflecting off their eyes. I return to my office and my notebook to monitor for defects. I am glad that I do not serve at a larger home. Fewer children allows me more time for each. Usually, I am able to spot defects early enough so that they can be corrected. This is not a liberty many fathers have. I pride myself on my home’s record. I have never had a child recalled.
Cluster D is my oldest cohort. Nearly men but not quite. I do my best to prepare them for the Auction but I fear it is an experience one can only learn from having. I spend the rest of my day—like I spend all of my days—charting the children’s statistics in my notebook.
The day’s second meal is much like the first. The children shuffle into the dining hall and take their seats. The orderlies set the tables and bring the porridge from the kitchen. I watch the children as they eat. My eyes fall to one in particular. He is D-13, one of my highest performing children. By the Bureau’s requirements, he is the ideal child. His chest resting high between his broad shoulders. His jaw stern and hairless, lips blooming full like hibiscus petals. His skin a silky shadow. If I didn’t know his file, I might think him young enough to be in cluster C, maybe even cluster B.
Yet today there is exhaustion bruised beneath his eyelids. I note this in my notebook and finish my meal. When the children finish theirs, I release them to their free activity period. I do not accompany them for this. They deserve at least some time unobserved by me. Besides, I use this time to study the incubators.
The basement of the home is cold, made worse by the humidity. The incubators like it this way. I watch the orderlies roll through the rows of orbs, tending to each as if the child inside were already born. There are hundreds of them, each orb uncannily similar to the next. I watch the figures toss and turn in that thick blue liquid. Do they have thoughts already? Do their thoughts differ from their dreams? It saddens me that they will not all survive. I see each one as my child despite the odds. As much as the Bureau would like to believe, there is nothing in this world that is absolute. Not even science.
I leave the orderlies to their assignments and retire to my own living quarters, where I take out my notebook and open the earlier correspondence once more. The words are strange enough, though it’s the intimacy of it that startles me most. We are taught that we will never again see the others from our home after we are auctioned and so intimacy is rare. There is no need of it in professional communications. We are taught there is no need of it at all. And yet I am sure every one of my children feels some sense of it. I can see it in the eyes of those whose gaze lingers too long on another. I can see it in those whose eyes remind me of my own.
As I begin to respond my heart picks up its pace, just as I imagine my children’s do when I catch them in places they shouldn’t be. It takes me many minutes before I bring myself to send the reply, but I do send it in the end. It says:
Dear Old Friend,
Though your nectar has long since dried, there is still memory of its sweetness, as if my mouth were full of it.
• • • •
It is not often, but sometimes I become lonely. I have my children to keep me company, of course, but my parental role prevents us from calling each other friend. The orderlies are as rigid and cold as they look, incapable of any meaningful conversation beyond necessary utilitarian communication. Even this is limited. There is no command I can give by voice that can’t be done with my notebook, though sometimes I speak to them anyway, if only just to remember what conversation used to be like. Most of the time they don’t respond but roll away to carry out whatever duty they have been assigned.
Because of this I actually look forward to visits from the Bureau. I don’t need their approval for satisfaction—I know that what I do I do well—though it is still pleasant to see the reviews reflect that supposition. The Bureau doesn’t come to my home often. Other fathers who do not produce a consistent quality of clusters are visited with more frequency. Visits to my home are rarely more than a formality.
This is what I expect when I hear the doorbell ring, but when I reach my home’s foyer I find that the orderly has let in a man I have not before seen. Moreover, he is followed by a cohort of three or four men that do not have the looks of Bureau men. The leader doesn’t appear to be an unpleasant man. His rounded jowls and short neck provide him with a jolly sort of demeanor. Still, he and his cohort make me uneasy. Random variables make me anxious. I do not like data I cannot make sense of.
The man takes off his hat and reaches out to shake my hand. I do not even have to ask before he shows me his credentials. They look authentic to me, but he insists the orderly scan them anyway. Everything checks out, as I knew it would, and he assures me I’ll hardly notice the others are there.
“Would you like a tour of the home?” I ask once he has put his badge away.
The man waves his hand and straightens the lapel of his blazer in an oddly casual manner. “I’d rather get straight down to business, if we could.”
I nod with a slight bow of respect to him and his cohort and step toward the classrooms. “Of course, right this way.”
First, we make our way past the dining hall and up the stairs to cluster A. I step into the room, but the men only poke in their heads. I do not want to say the Bureau man’s rosy cheeks turn to a grimace for a smile never quite leaves his face, but I feel he somehow looks displeased. We do not stay long with cluster A, neither do we linger with clusters B nor C. However, when we enter into cluster D’s classroom, the Bureau man’s head perks with interest. I assume he will only want a cursory glance and am surprised when he motions with a swift hand for his cohort to follow as he strolls right past me through the aisles of glowing desks.
My children do not seem to notice as the men walk by, their concentration locked tightly to the desks’ exercises. The men study each individual child with a greater intensity than I scrutinize my children’s progress reports. They aren’t critiquing the children’s quality but seem as if they are looking for something. I cannot say what. The only indication I receive is the Bureau man’s stopping at the tired child, D-13. The man bends as much as his thick waist will allow and brings his face so close I am certain the child can smell his breath. He prods his hand into the child’s dense, coarse curls. D-13 raises his head and glances at the men but returns to his studies as soon as the Bureau man takes his hand away.
“What’s this one called?” the Bureau man shouts to me from across the room.
I clear my throat as I am not accustomed to speaking loudly. “D-13,” I say, though by the man’s grunt I cannot tell if he’s heard me. The men continue to stare at the child for a while longer. Long enough to make me uncomfortable.
When they do look away, they show no further interest in the other children. Briskly they pace out of the room and down the stairs without need of my guidance. I chase them to the foyer where the Bureau man puts his hat back on and the others arrange their coats over their shoulders.
“Don’t you want to look over the incubators?” I ask.
The Bureau man smiles warmly and shakes his head. “There’s no need. A father of your reputation I am certain keeps a sterile and cleanly incubation chamber.”
The Bureau man then opens the front door without waiting for the orderly to do so for him. He and his cohort do not offer so much as a goodbye, but I catch them before the Bureau man slams the door shut. “If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to the other man from the Bureau? The one they had been sending?”
The Bureau man snorts and chews at the inner flesh of his lips. “Reassigned,” he says. “I’ll be filing your reviews for the foreseeable future. But don’t you worry. If you keep up the good work, you’ll be getting excellent marks from me.”
With that, the men turn down the steps and into their carriage. They spin off quickly, shooting up dust and gravel as they soar past the green hills and into the forest beyond.
• • • •
That evening, once my children are asleep, I open my notebook to find that I have received a reply to yesterday’s correspondence. My heart flutters as I open it.
My Dear Old Friend,
How good it is to hear our tongues still share the same taste. Here there is nothing but a bitterness I hope you have been spared. Only the sweet of you has allowed me to swallow what has been forced down my throat.
I would be lying if I said I did not wonder what lies beyond the forest. There are many functions one might be auctioned to fulfill, but I have never seen any of them performed in person. In truth, I did not see myself being left behind to run the home while the others from my cohort were auctioned elsewhere. Over the years I have grown to enjoy my position—it is familiar and necessary—but for years directly after I was auctioned, I envied the world hidden from me.
Rumors reached me, of course, through various channels, though mostly through the Bureau men. The world beyond the trees has rarely been portrayed kindly and so I am glad that I have been able to live in ignorance. However, if for only a moment, my old friend’s correspondence brushes away this veil of bliss.
I wonder where he is. What that place must look like. I try to think of him in any place at all, but when I close my eyes, I can only picture how he was before the Auction. What would he look like now? Firm hands made coarse by callouses? Eyes stretched thin by squinting in the bright sun? Perhaps he was auctioned to a home much like this one and does not look to have aged a day from when we last saw each other.
I think hard about how to reply, but nothing comes before I am notified through my notebook that an orderly has found two students out of bed. I close the correspondence and reluctantly make my way toward the kitchen.
When I arrive, the orderly has a firm grip on both children’s arms, though both are too petrified to attempt escape. One is D-13 and the other is D-6. Each is unclothed from the waist down, the liminal space between their legs halfway between manhood and childhood. I command the orderly to release them and let them gather their bedclothes from the floor. It obeys and I listen to the hiss of steam as heavy gears awkwardly open its grip. Quickly the two children make themselves decent.
After I command the orderly to return to its rounds, I lead the children to my office. Their faces are a deep maroon and I can hear every heavy swallow they make as they trudge behind me. They do not wish to sit once we reach my office. Somehow they feel themselves unworthy of that allowance. Still, I insist and they do as I say.
They stew like hot porridge as I gather my thoughts from behind my mahogany desk. I try to keep my voice even and soft. I am not angry. I’m not upset either. If anything, I worry about them.
I lean forward and cross my fingers. I don’t want to appear stern but neither do I want to betray my nervousness either. “What do each of you think about the Auction?” I ask. They look at each other for the correct answer, but there is none. Their eyes return to the floor so I continue. “When I was a child I, too, forgot the father of this home had once been raised in a home just as I had. I don’t know how similar his experience was to mine, but after I was auctioned and was assigned as father, I discovered that he knew a great deal more than I gave him credit for.”
D-6 glances at D-13 though his gaze is not returned. He is lankier than D-13 and quite tall. Timid in both demeanor and appearance. I can see the bones jutting from his cheeks as his mouth twitches with anxiety. He does not want to speak but knows I won’t break the silence and neither will D-13. “Do you mean to ask if we are frightened?” he says.
I drum my fingers against the back of my hand and nod as he speaks. I try to let him know that I am receptive to his thinking. “Every single child in your cluster is afraid.”
At this, D-13 picks up his head. He is confused, though he hides it well. He purses his lips and straightens his spine to feign a defensive posture. “I’m not afraid. Fear doesn’t make a man. A man transcends fear.”
I do my best to hold back a snicker but a slight smile sneaks through. “I see you have been taking in your desk’s lessons well. But just because you can recite your lessons back to me doesn’t mean you truly believe what you say.”
This angers him but he knows better than to try me. He swallows his frustration, just as he’s been taught to. “I’m nearly a man, I know that much,” he says.
D-6 throws him a worried look—almost a warning—but D-13 doesn’t seem to see it. I unlace my hands and straighten my posture to imitate his. “That much is true,” I say. “The Auction is nearly upon you and there is much man in you. You are taught that the Auction is a rite of passage and it is. But just as there is much man in you now, there will be much child in you once you are auctioned. Your desk teaches you there is no space in between, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever let go of the child in me entirely. It can be a useful thing. Don’t rush so quickly to throw it away.”
“But how are we supposed to do that?” D-6 asks.
I turn to him and say, “Be more discreet, for one.”
D-6’s face is still as stone. My words are a thin mist. D-13 looks like he has more to say but doesn’t, so I dismiss them both. There is no point in punishing them. After they leave my home, there will be more than enough punishment to make up for it.
• • • •
Not much more than a week passes before the Bureau man returns, though this time he is alone. When I meet him in the foyer, he is patting his belly and grinning wide. He again shows me his credentials, despite my telling him again that it’s unnecessary and assuring him I remembered who he is.
After the exchange of pleasantries he says, “Where’s the child?” Less as a question, more as a statement of his authority.
“Which one?” I ask and he bellows laughter that echoes up to the rafters.
I don’t want to know which child he means, but I do. I try to feign confusion, but I can tell it is a thin façade and lead him up the stairs anyway. I hope he will stay at the entrance to the classroom, but he makes his way straight to D-13 and pulls him away from his desk. D-13 looks toward me, but I do nothing.
The Bureau man walks D-13 to the hallway. I stop outside classroom D, assuming the hallway is as far as the Bureau man will take the child, but without a word he continues to the stairs and down them. As I follow, I call after them. “Where are you taking him?”
The Bureau man does not stop. The home’s wooden steps creak loudly up into the rafters.
I race around the Bureau man and stand firmly in the way of the door. “This doesn’t make sense,” I argue. “The child’s marks are perfect. Why is he being recalled?”
The Bureau man shrugs and takes a step forward. He looks at me as he does. It is a look that tells me the child’s beauty is not lost on him.
I spread my arms as if that were to make a difference. “Who is your superior? I was not notified of this.”
D-13 isn’t looking at me or the Bureau man. He is glancing up the stairs. At the top I can see D-6 has left the classroom too, though an orderly’s iron claws are fighting to return him to his desk, steam rising from its blocky head evidence of the thing’s substantial exertion.
I take out my notebook as the Bureau man gladly provides me with his supervisor’s name. It is unnerving how easily the name slips through his lips. I establish a connection with the Bureau’s local division and ask for the name he has given me. After a brief moment I am connected with the supervisor. I inquire fervently about this strange order, but quickly my words are shot down.
“Whatever the child’s records indicate, he is being recalled,” the man on the line says. “I cannot discuss the matter further.”
I have nothing to say to this, so I ask to be transferred to someone else and I am. This person tells me the same thing, so I ask to be transferred again. The Bureau man never loses the grin from his jolly red cheeks. He seems content to wait for an eternity. He knows the outcome, it doesn’t matter how many Bureau men I speak to.
I sever the connection and scowl at the Bureau man. D-6 must have been dragged back to the classroom, since D-13 has now shifted his focus to the Bureau man. “Where are you taking me?” he asks.
“To a place where you’ll be well taken care of.”
I shiver at the Bureau man’s words. I don’t know why but my mind becomes infected by the image of my dear old friend. D-13 is scared and shivering, but he asks no more questions. In this moment, it occurs to me that maybe he has lost the child in him and that I have lost the man.
“Tell me what is wrong with the child!” I shout at him.
With one hand on the child and the other on my shoulder, the Bureau man shoves me aside and walks out the door. I want to resist but I cannot. My body is wiser than I am.
“Tell me what is wrong with him!”
I watch as tears blur the scene of the Bureau man shoving the child into the carriage and soaring away from the home.
• • • •
That night I do not accompany my children to dinner. Instead I go to the basement and spend the time with the incubators. Many of the figures do not move, but some of them kick and fight as if they are having a bad dream. I walk up to one of the orbs and peer through the glass. I am struck by the unborn child’s hands. They are almost like mine. They have knuckles and nails. Five fat little fingers, small and delicate.
If I wanted to, I could terminate every single orb in the room. Save them the pain of knowing there is nothing better. I tell myself that is not true. That there is much beauty to soothe the pain. But I can’t bring myself to believe it.
I still have not sent a reply to my dear friend’s second correspondence. What could I say to him? How could I tell him of all that has happened when I am here—still in the comfort of the home where we grew up—and he is bound by whatever life he was bought into? What more could I offer him than remembrance of a life he will never again see?
I sit down on the floor right where I am and open the correspondence in my notebook. I read it and then again and then again. I don’t know how many times I have read it since it first was sent.
I don’t stop reading it until I hear the footsteps of someone walking down into the incubation chamber. It must be a child because the sound does not roll as an orderly would. I pick my head up and see that it is D-6. Cautiously, he makes his way over to me and sits down.
For a while we sit silently in the comfort of each other’s presence. We both know there is nothing to say but for now we are okay with that. We are okay knowing someone else can feel what we feel.
It is not me who breaks the silence. It is D-6. He says, “I guess I always knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t think it would be this hard when it did.”
“It never is,” I say. “It wouldn’t have been any easier if he had stayed until the Auction.”
D-6 puts his head down. “What if we went after him?” he suggests, but looks like he can tell how insane that sounds.
“It’s not worth it,” I say.
“Why not?” he asks, even though he knows damn well why.
I try to apologize but I know the words aren’t right, so I say, “I’ve never been beyond the forest in my entire life. You at least have that much to look forward to.”
D-6 looks over as if this thought had never occurred to him. I can’t tell if my words are helpful.
I hop to my feet and extend my hand to him. “Let’s go to the hills,” I suggest. D-6 hesitates, but I grab his arm and yank him up to his feet. “Come on, let’s go.”
We go up the stairs, into the foyer, and out the door. The hills are not far, just about a ten-minute walk from the home. The sun is beginning to fade behind the trees when we reach the top of the tallest knoll. D-6 slinks down onto the grass and I do the same. We look at the trees as they rustle in the wind. It is almost as if they are dancing.
“Will I ever see him again?” he asks and I smile.
We sit until the sun is no longer visible and the sky has turned a bright auburn. I don’t want to get up and neither does he. For a moment, we can see the entire world.