[The idea behind the 1970s date of this story was to add some immediate distance between the reader and the story, to start people thinking about something other than the here and now, a nudge to the more overt defamiliarization that occurs as soon as the story starts done.]
"More well known is the cannibalism of female primates. Primates, as you know, are large omnivorous mammals. When primates mate in nature, the male cautiously creeps up on the female, mounts her, and copulates. If the female gets the chance, she will eat him. Most often she begins by biting into his head. Loss of the head does not seem to throw the male off its sexual stride. Indeed, since the head is the seat of some inhibitory nerve centres, it is possible that the male's sexual performance is improved. This is an added benefit. The primary one is that she obtains a good meal." Regina Dawkins, The Altruistic Gene (1976)
[The quotes are all minor alterations from source material. You can find the original, referring to sexual cannibalism among insects, in Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. The second comes from A. O. Wilson's book Sociobiology. Finally, the last is a verbatim quotation from Gould's article "Only the Wings Remain." I couldn't actually find the date of the Guild article – though I must admit that I didn't look very hard – though the rest published the same year as the books they mimic. As a device, these quotes didn't work as well as I'd hoped. I wanted them to suggest not only the immediate biological differences between the humans we're about to meet and the reader, but also underscore the way in which biological fact and the larger culture over-determine Cole's life even when he himself is unaware of its foundations and justifications. Unfortunately, most folks seem to have thought them heavy handed and at least one reader still didn't get what was happening in the story – suggesting to me that the quotes were both annoying and uninformative. A big mistake.]
November 17, 1978
He was Mr. Peterson when he arrived, and he would demand that it never go further than that. Anything more than Mr. Peterson would hurt later, he'd explain.
[In an overly-long first draft o this story, we learned that Mr. Peterson's younger brother's father was named Nick. Mr. Peterson attached to him much the way Cole attaches to Peterson at the end of the story. To try to avoid attachment, Peterson is placing barriers to identification in Cole's way, such as the name rule.]
Cole had been raking leaves when Mr. Peterson's taxi pulled up. It wasn't easy. The rake's handle was longer than Cole was tall. He stopped, stood up straight and adjusted the bright red knit cap Aunt Greta had made him. He held the rake parallel to his body, teeth up, like a small soldier holding up a military banner.
[In the same overly-long draft mentioned before, Cole first appeared wearing a skirt. The idea was that young boys, in a matriarchal world, often patterned on the female in small ways. One of the ways this was going to be shown is that young boys – in this story – would dress like young girls. I still like this idea, but I figured I needed the space for more important details and I was already going to be making so many demands on the reader to rethink things that the skirt wasn't worth it. In retrospect, I think it would have helped impress upon the reader the importance of the fathers who only briefly appear in the lives of these boys. Boys like Cole live in houses run by groups of women – in this story the female collective is the primary form of household – and they really only hang out with adult men when these men are about to die. The psychological impact of these brief encounters would be huge. I was going to show this by Cole ditching skirts and wearing pants. But this was all sacrificed for space.]
Mr. Peterson nearly stumbled out of the cab. His upper body lunged out of the rear passenger door, knocking a small briefcase out of the cab and on to the unpaved, dirt and rock shoulder next to the mailbox. It looked might he might come tumbling out completely. His right arm shoot forward, his fingers spread as if clutching at some invisible handhold. The left arm, obscured from Cole's vision and still within the cab, must have grabbed hold of something because Mr. Peterson's body came to a swift, jerking stop. His upper body then vanished back into the cab. Slowly, two stubby legs, wrapped in suit pants and terminating in shiny black leather shoes, emerged from the cab. As the legs emerged, the pants slid up slightly, revealing a small strip of formal socks and an expanse of pale white leg flesh. Then out came the body again. Mr. Peterson was wearing a suit, no jacket, a white button up, and a bright, wide green tie with a paisley pattern on it. He sat on the edge of the cab seat and gracelessly fished his wallet out of his back pocket. He counted out some bills and paid the driver. Then, with a lurch, he stood up and exited the cab. It looked to Cole as if the cab had spat Mr. Peterson out. Mr. Peterson turned and reached back into the cab, extracting a small travel bag and a long gray trench coat. He stooped to pick up the fallen brief case as the cab rolled off.
[I wanted there to be something pathetic and slapsticky about Peterson's first appearance. There were two reasons. First, it was supposed to a sort of light note that would turn sour as the details of what were going to happen to him became more clear. Second, it was a quick way to contrast him with the image Cole forms of him at the end of the story and perhaps con the reader into feeling like Peterson has somehow become this dignified character – something that is purely a slight of hand trick as Peterson does nothing in the story, let alone anything noble.]
Mr. Peterson walked across the yard. His foot steps crunched the dead leaves left about by Cole's indifferent raking.
He reached the small, cleared circle of fading green and extended his hand to Cole. "You must be Cole?"
[The fall setting was to invert the traditional spring/birth connection and replace it with something more ambiguous. I was trying to think what a world where every birth also entailed a fairly gruesome would develop by way of symbols for birth. I rapidly ditched the idea as it wouldn't have produced any productive copy.]
"You take a cab all the way from the city?"
"I've never been in a cab," said Cole.
"Take me inside?" Mr. Peterson asked.
Cole's mother opened the door before he and Mr. Peterson made it up the front steps. Over his mother's shoulder, Cole could make out the eager faces of three of his five aunts. His mother was reserved. She leaned out the door and let Mr. Peterson kiss her on the right cheek. She then held out her hand, plump from pre-mating breeding stores. Mr. Peterson took her hand and, with more dexterity then Cole would have given him credit for, interlaced his fingers with her thickened digits, lower their hands to his side, and stepped into the home with one smooth motion.
[Though it isn't gone into here at all, the coolness of the mother was supposed to suggest how little courting and "love" mattered in this world. In brainstorming about it, I figured the sexual landscape would resemble something like a world of arranged marriages. There'd be some people who mated who did genuinely love one another. But mostly the idea was that females selected mates for the potential to produce healthy off-spring and for the resources that the male would leave for their children. In Cole's mother's case, though this is only obliquely mentioned, she loved Cole's father but views Peterson as a strictly unemotional reproductive prospect.]
Once he was inside, the aunts collective began to shower him with greetings. Aunt Iris offered to take his bags upstairs. Mr. Peterson thanked her and handed her his travel bag. She inquired about the briefcase, but Mr. Peterson said he'd keep it.
["Aunt's collective" is a mistake. It is CRwM-speak and not the voice of the narrator of this piece.]
"It isn't for me," he said. "It is Cole's."
Standing outside, still holding the rake like some ragged banner, Cole shot a glance at the briefcase. The legacy gifts. He thought about Ricky Fischer down the street. Ricky's little sister's father had left Ricky a deactivated grenade that he'd taken off the body of a VC soldier in 1968. It was widely held to be the single greatest legacy gift ever. Though Mr. Peterson, his clumsy pear-shaped body wrapped in business class respectability promised a considerably lamer gift. He looked like a pen set and a book of daily "deep thoughts," or some other completely bogus gifts. No man ever looked less like a VC grenade.
[Some readers thought the legacy gift was something along the lines of the food gifts insects give to mates who might devour them. While I was aware of the practice in insec mating, I wasn't really thinking of that when I came up with the legacy gift. The idea behind the legacy gift is that men have developed this small way of being remembered, if only vaguely, by the boys they leave behind. In a world were there are virtually no men over thirty, men leave virtually no trace on the world. Furthermore, I imagined there would be few lasting works of art from men as most lasting things would be produced by and for women. As I imagined it, this handing down of mementos is all they've got. I also wanted the gifts mentioned to be the sort of things boys would think are cool as, for the men of this world, that's the only common, sustained, collective experience they all have. The language here sort of becomes Cole-like, still in third person but communicating Cole's view by adopting something more childish. This sort of "infection" of the third person narration by the speech of its subjects is something I stole from Dickens, who is the mater of it. I want to do that more, but I had hard time finding places where it would feel natural. And that's why Dickens is a great author and I'm not.]
"The first area of conflict that can be resolved is the relation of genes to culture. Many social scientists see no value in sociobiology because they are persuaded that variation among cultures has no genetic basis. Their premise is right, their conclusion wrong. We can do well to remember Madame de Staël's dictum that those who wish to study humans should stand close, while those who wish to study humanity should look from afar." Alyssa Wilson, Sociobiology (1978)
[This is almost verbatim, except the dictum is Rousseau's and no salon hostess and intellectual scene-maker Madame de Staël's. Rousseau's baby-making ways would have ensured he was mommy chow too soon in career to have made a lasting impact on culture.]
November 20, 1978
"Aunt Vera, will I have to eat too?"
"No. Your mother only wants it to be her and Mr. Peterson."
"This kid in school, Joe Annunziata, well he said that his whole family was there. All his aunts, and his sisters. And even the boys."
[This is the only real clue that, despite the organic facts of reproduction, the experience and its meaning is a cultural one. This is also the only clue in the story that females in this world are often more fecund than humans in our reality. I should have made this explicit as the demographics of the situation gave many readers pause. To tell you the truth, I'd decided not to think about it in favor of concentrating on the details of just this one particular story. In early drafts, Cole has several siblings, but they were flat, uninteresting characters. Rather than develop them, I just said to hell with it and ran with the single child thing. It seemed more lonely, which was the tone I wanted. A lazy decision that astute readers caught me up on.]
"Even the boys?" asked Cole's Aunt.
"That's what he said."
"Well every family is different," she said. There was something in Aunt Vera's tone that suggested she thought this was a disappointing but unavoidable and impersonal fact, like the rudeness of cities or the chill of early winter. Vera, thin and kind, always a bit melancholy, had never put on breeding stores. She had never mated. Cole knew that it was important to Vera and the rest of her sisters, but he did not understand the particular. Like all young boys, only solvable mysteries held any allure for Cole. When it became clear that nobody was going to explain his aunt's infertility, Cole's curiosity cooled and the mystery of his aunt's incapacity to breed hardened into a dead truth. She couldn't have babies and that was all there was to know. Still, though Cole never considered it, the fact that Aunt Vera was never to full participate in the rituals of motherhood was, perhaps, the reason for unmediated kindness. Of all his aunts, she was the closest to him.
[I like Vera. I enjoyed writing her.]
"Are you going to eat?" Cole asked. They were seated at the kitchen table. Cole was coloring in a Star Wars coloring book. A female space pirate was smuggling a young prince out of the clutches of some robotic looking women. Vera was content that Cole understood it all and that was enough of an engagement for her.
[May, who saw the first draft of this story, thought I should skip using Star Wars and create something more of the specific imagined world of the story. The thinking was that the whole parallel universe feel of using the franchise was too cheesy. I actually tried at one point, but I thought it lacked the same punch as twisting around a well-known, almost universal mythology. Nobody seems to have mentioned it either way, so I don't think it much mattered.]
"No. Not this time," she answered. She took a sip of her coffee. "It was different with your father."
Cole did not look up from his book. He held the broken bit of wax crayon in his hand, some reddish purple color.
"We were all there then. It was the first mating for any of us and it was . . . special, I guess. Your mother had special clothing made. She was so plump, so ripe with stores. She looked radiant." Vera was now talking to herself. "The second one, they say it just isn't as important. You've done it once. Right? Cole. Cole. Look at me."
[Cole's father was eaten in a ceremony in which the mating female – Cole's mom – presented gifts of chunks of the father to all the women who would help raise the child, in this case, all of Cole's aunts.]
Cole looked up from the book, but he did not set down his crayon.
"Do you want to be there? I could ask your mother if it is okay."
Cole shrugged. "Guess not."
He returned to his coloring book. The Empress was not pleased.
Later that day, Vera would take him to get a haircut. While waiting in row of uncomfortable chairs, ignoring the magazines whose cartoons he never got anyways, Cole noticed that one of the women getting her hair done was pregnant. She overflowed the chair, gorged with food, fat with child, stuffed with her mate. She wore glasses and a loose fitting, short sleeve blue dress. Her arm was so thick that dimples had formed at her elbows and there was a crease in the flesh of her wrist. It looked like a doll's wrist, a seam or break in the otherwise smooth plastic to allow for articulation. Cole wondered what his mother would look like.
[Originally, this scene took place in a bookstore, but a hair saloon just seemed more mundane.]
He started crying. It started as a minor sob. Cole tried hard to stifle it. He didn't want his Aunt Vera or the crowd of creepily solicitous hair stylists to see him crying. But the moment Vera asked him what was wrong, it was as if she had opened a floodgate. His sobs rose instantly to a piercing wail.
Vera, equally scared, frustrated, and confused, pulled him from the shop. He did not get his haircut until three weeks later.
Years later, when trying to explain the significance of that nameless, anonymous woman to a young boy named Peter, he would say that the folds of skin at her wrist made him realize for the very first time that he would someday be somebody's father.
[Peter is to Cole what Cole was to Peterson, hence the name connection.]
''Sexual cannibalism with active male complicity should be favored in many groups, but it has rarely evolved. Ask why we don't see it where it should occur.'' Sara Gould, "Only the Paws Remain" (1974)
November 21, 1978
Mr. Peterson and Cole taped up several sheets of clear plastic all over what his mother referred to as the sewing room. It was a tiny room of the upstairs hall. Though it contained a sewing machine, it had become a modest museum of domestic items too precious to throw out, but to useless to justify their presence in a major room of the house.
[At least one reader correctly figured out that the plastic is to prevent the eating from destroying the room. The idea is that, removed from the cultural trappings, the whole process is pretty violent. I wanted to emphasize that, like many other biological functions, the civilized world must accommodate hardwired reactions that are millions of years old. The fit is always provisional, messy, and mistaken for the "good." The image of a man putting up plastic tape in anticipation of his own demise was the first thing I thought of when the story's basic idea presented itself to me.]
Because Mr. Peterson needed the sheets to reach higher than Cole could stretch, Cole was given the job of tearing off strips of painters tape and handing them to Mr. Peterson whenever he requested a piece. The tape was a pale blue on the sticky side and a bright, intense blue on the reverse. The bright blue side had an almost pebbly texture, like lizard skin.
"Your aunt Jeanine says your friend got a grenade for his legacy."
Cole wasn't sure if it was a question.
"That sounds amazing."
"I guess," said Cole. "It was heavier than it looks. I though it would be like a baseball or something, because you have to throw it. But it was heavier than it looks."
"Give me a piece of tape. Thanks. Do you have soldiers? Toy soldiers?"
"No. My mom and my aunts won't let me have war toys."
[It has been pointed out that, demographically speaking, sending men to war when they are such a scarce resource in this fictional world is folly. I guess I don't see that being its being a folly has ever prevented any culture from going to war.]
Mr. Peterson's back was towards Cole. He made a sort of grunt. Even at Cole's age he understood it was criticism that couldn't be held against him as it was not actually words of dissent.
"They say war toys program kids to go die in wars that old women start, or something like that," Cole said. "I'm allowed Star Wars guys, and they have guns and stuff. I have some toy pirates too. I guess they have guns. And swords."
"I hope you like your legacy gift," Mr. Peterson said. "It was given to me by my little brother's father."
Mr. Peterson hung up the plastic with a deliberate purposefulness that was too intense to be called slow. He'd stretch the plastic to its full length and place a piece of tape at the top. Careful, but unhesitating motions. He never struggled to unstick the tape from the plastic, never started over. He worked with a calm so deeply ingrained that it was unsurprising and comfortable. When a piece of tape was where it should be, Mr. Peterson flattened it out by sliding the heel of his palm across the tape. Cole thought that this is what all fathers must be like.
[Truth be told, I don't know what the legacy gift could be. It is such an obvious focus that anything I cooked up was a disappointment. Thematically, so much is riding on the gift that any revelation felt like a major anti-climax.]
[I saved a bit of text from I cut from the last paragraph, so here's the directors cut alternative ending:]
Thoughts in the mind of young boy are like dead leaves in a fast moving creek. They spin on the surface and then are submerged, perhaps to be glanced again briefly and only in part. Or the flash, spinning and whole, on the surface once more. Or they disappear and are never seen again. But they are always in churning motion, as if possessed of a grasping and desperate life of their own. In Cole's mind, still on the rushing pull of thought for just a moment, was the idea that all fathers must be like this. All fathers must be like this, he thought.
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