(Originally published in Chizine, 2010)
I was born in the Warren, and the Warren was all I knew. Both my mother and father were Meers. We go back to the founders. My father was very proud of our ancestry, but he was also very ill. He talked about forging tunnels and building walls and digging rooms for more families, more, when of course the Warren was already finished, and there was no more concrete to dig a new space out of. The rooms had been split as small as they could go without forcing adults to stoop, without making stretching out to sleep completely impossible. Babies were being suffocated, usually under older children, sometimes under their parents. The tunnels had become so narrow that we could only pass through one by one, and even then we had to dodge laundry from the overhead apartments, and falling garbage bags, and other things that people decided they just didn’t have room for. I guess before Warrens get finished – get carved up into this Swiss cheese honeycomb as far and as dense as they can go – people have high expectations of how it will turn out. I’ve seen my father’s sketches. There is an order there that is inhuman, it is so exacting. My mother used to say that in a Warren, you eventually lose control. I don’t just mean the jealous lovers that beat each other’s heads against the floor, or the men we kids used to call trenchcoat nasties. I mean you lose control of the Warren.
And I don’t mean to say that everything is shit in a Warren, because there are reasons people join Warrens, and they are good reasons. You save resources, save money, you don’t drive so you don’t clog the air. You know your neighbors. You’re always close to help, close to home. You share. You keep each other warm. Warrens have saved lives. I’m not just saying this because my parents taught me to; I really did see it, every now and then. Every now and then I’d get a hint of what was so great about living in a Warren.
But mostly I was miserable. Mostly there were Pugelbones.
* * *
“You mean the Helix Warrencola.”
“God, no, I don’t mean that. I mean…” Dr. Roman’s blue ballpoint pen and razor-thin eyebrow lifted in warning. “I mean yeah, okay, whatever.”
“Unless we’re talking about something else. I just want us to be careful about our terms.”
“Well, that’s what I mean, the Helix Warrencola, but that isn’t what we called them, and you know we saw them first. You know because we told you, over and over, that there were these things in the Warren, and we didn’t know what they were, and nobody ever came to check…”
Dr. Roman twirled her pen toward the cavity in her neck. “Me? I didn’t come to this office until last year, Lizbet, and besides, we have nothing to do with Civil Security.”
“I don’t mean you you, I mean…” The ceiling light in her office was very smooth, very large, very creamy and eggy white. Like a giant flattened pearl. Like Dr. Roman. “Never mind. It’s nothing.”
“Because remember, I’m here to help people like you.”
“Yeah, right. I know.” There was no way out. “I’m sorry.” There was no other way.
Dr. Roman blinked with slow, heavily lacquered eyelashes. She was a woman who had time and space to spare. “Then go ahead.”
* * *
Everyone in the Warren called them Pugelbones. But I learned it from my sister – Katrin, two years older. She was a fiddler until our old man neighbor asked our father to smash the fiddle up. Our walls were thin, some no thicker than a hand, and Katrin wasn’t a very good fiddler. But she was very good at telling stories, and after our parents sent us to bed so they could hiss at each other in private, Katrin would lean down from her hammock, her eyes all big and jaundiced, and say, “I want to tell a story. Listen to my story.” And we had to, my brother and I. He’d reach up from his hammock and grab my hand, sometimes my hair. We were stuck beneath her; her words had nowhere to go but down.
She said that sometimes bones don’t make it to the grave with the rest of the body – in the Warren, cemetery space closed up fast, and people had to be buried on top of other, older corpses. Hopefully blood relatives. People die the way they live, I guess. So sometimes a bone would get washed up to the surface in a rainstorm, or get left behind in a moldy apartment where some poor hermit died without anybody noticing. Anyway, loose bones were always turning up in the Warren. My uncle said he’d found a skull once, although he never showed us. I found a bone myself, once, a back bone, a – vertebra. It was lying all by its lonesome in the hall outside our apartment. I picked it up and buried it, because this is what my sister told me: bones that don’t know they’re dead, that don’t feel that blanket of soil and realize “my time has come, the worms inherit me,” they will act like they’re still alive. And they go searching for clothes and trash to cover themselves with, because bones aren’t accustomed to being naked in the world. The very first time this happened, the bone was a femur of a garbage man named Johan Pugel. So we called them Pugelbones.
Nobody really knew what it was that Pugelbones did, because many of us had never actually seen one. On first glance they look like any old heap of clutter and waste. There were a lot of sightings, but the Warren is filled with shadows, see – nothing is flat. Even the walls bulge like they’re filled egg sacs, so you see these shapes everywhere. Our old man neighbor complained to you people about an invasive species but a lot of grown-ups only mentioned it when we were being bad, like, shut your mouth or I’ll sit you outside with the Pugelbones. No more whining now, I bet. And then you spend the whole night with your hands over your mouth, listening for the sound of something shuffling in the hallway. It’s not footsteps. It’s too soft and slow and continuous, like the sound of pillows falling. Walls no thicker than your hand, remember.
* * *
“Did you fight with your parents often?” Dr. Roman tilted her head to the left as if on an axis, as if she could swivel it all the way around if she wanted to. “Did they hurt you when they punished you?”
“What does that matter?” But it mattered. Because Marget was still in the holding center with a wrist band and a change of clothes, it mattered. “I mean, not really, no. We didn’t fight. Fight’s not the right word.”
“Because it sounds like a toxic relationship.” Dr. Roman let the “x” in toxic linger on in all its crisp and nasty consonants; maybe it was her favorite word. “It doesn’t sound like you had any positive role models in the Warren. It’s not unusual…”
“I don’t need one to raise Marget.” And then, because the stench of the old apartment and its phlegm and germs were defiling this lovely egg-white office, “My father was very ill. He didn’t even know what he was saying at the end.”
“Why, what did he say then?” Goddamn, she could catch a scent.
“Something about population control. He talked about rabbits and foxes…” Dr. Roman had gone very stiff and bloodless. “Like I said, he was very ill.”
“The Helix Warrencola were a newly discovered species. The idea that they were in any way created as a weapon of some pogrom against the Meer people is not only offensive, it’s inaccurate.” So that was offense showing in her face. “Grossly inaccurate.”
They were fond of “grossly” too. Grossly unfit to care for a child. Grossly deluded. Gross conditions and gross behavior. Maybe that was why it took them so long to respond to the Warren’s distress calls – hard to keep clean in the muck of a massacre. When Civil Security finally arrived the officers in their camouflage armor could not stop complaining about the Warren’s smell and its soggy streets. It was true that the Warren hid nothing, that there was no space in the Warren to provide the illusion of disinfection.
“You asked me what my father said. So I told you.”
“You need to let go of this anger you hold toward us. Really we’ve done a lot to try to help the Meer people.”
Anger beats at the heart like a call, like a drum, like a march. It is quick and to the point – it is easy. It Gets Shit Done. It Makes Shit Happen. Guilt, on the other hand, is a worm that burrows. “I wish I was angry.” Hooks into the heart, hooks of all kind: metal hooks, hooks of green glass, hooks like anchors and hooks like hands. Some worms just cannot be un-dug.
Dr. Roman opened the case file and flipped through sheets of multi-colored paper. “You had a lot of anger as a child. You threw… bricks off rooftops? You punched one boy’s teeth out of his head?” She wanted a response, but what would be correct? An apology? An excuse? More confessions? Tears? Would tears bring Marget home? “Why do you think you did that?”
* * *
Because I liked to break things down. My father built, I broke. My sister crafted, I destroyed. When our old man neighbor asked my father to smash up Katrin’s fiddle, you know, he didn’t have the heart to. So I did it. Ripped out its strings and pulled its neck off. It isn’t that I wanted to hurt Katrin. We may have lost touch since moving to the city but she is still my sister. I just liked to see things come apart. I liked to see things in their rawest form, reduced so far they can’t be reduced any more. Fiddles, bread loaves, radios, socks. Didn’t matter. I had loved peeling layers ever since my mother handed me an orange when I was a baby – but I didn’t start breaking things that weren’t meant to be broken until I got older.
I was breaking pieces off the ledge of the rooftop playground. You know if the smog’s not too bad, you can see the city from up there. It always looked so open and flat and sparse, like God the Creator just scattered a bunch of boxes over the plain and strung them together with long gray roads. Sprawling herds, my father said. Overfed cows in their golden barns.
Anyway I took a break to watch geese flying south – I never got to see the sky from our apartment – when I saw the Pugelbone in the far corner of the roof, near the storage shed. It looked like a pile of abandoned shit: some kid’s torn-up corduroy jacket, a garbage bag, doll skin, drain hair, curdled milk, dead rats. Stuff that would have ended up incinerated or washed down the sewer into the River Becquerel. Except this pile was alive. I could tell. It was breathing. Like all these dead things had been wound together and reanimated. It was beautiful, and I wanted to strip it to the bone.
It didn’t scare me like I thought it would. Didn’t scare me like it should have. It was staring right at me, even though it didn’t have eyes, and there was this innocence about it, like it knew it was rude to stare. When my father stared it felt like rubber bullets. With my mother and Katrin, more like needles. And with my brother… well, my point is: when this thing stared at me, all I felt was a flutter of eyelashes.
I should probably say that I didn’t have much in the way of friends. The other kids thought I was a waste of space and carbon and oxygen – it’s why I went after that kid Benjin, punched his teeth out. But Benjin was right about what he said. I was a leech, I was citizen failure. I was only ever good at breaking things, and in a Warren you have to be useful or you’ll get ground up into fodder, living in some lonely crawl-space, eating other people’s garbage because you’re a good-for-nothing, can’t-contribute-nothing, burden on the community. And I couldn’t wire electricity. I couldn’t fix drains or people or food. I had dreams where I’d find this tiny crack in the wall that I could fit my finger into, and then my hand, and then my arm, until I’d mash my whole body inside the concrete like a wad of gum and hope the renovators wouldn’t come in yelling, “We need this space! Move out!”
So when the Pugelbone looked at me in fondness, well, I guess I paid it back.
* * *
“You wanted it to be your friend.”
“I thought if I was nice to it, then it would be nice to me.”
Dr. Roman’s eyes appeared to be closed, but she was only looking down. She was writing something secret on her little scented pad of paper.
“Is this a common theme in your relationships with other people?”
Other people were bodies in traffic, plump and heart-shaped faces like the ones on billboards and commercials. Polished and empty as the great big boulevards with their seasonal garlands and deserted buses. Foreign people, foreign lives. It’s all about keypads and time sheets now, little Meerkat. “I don’t know.”
“What about with Marget’s father?”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“You need to be forthcoming with me during these sessions.” She tapped her pad of paper with the ink end of her mighty pen. “It’s very important that I make an accurate assessment of your capacity as a caretaker.”
“I don’t know who he was.” Blue shirt, iron-on logo of a red-crown. He’d heard Meer bitches were little tigers in the sack. He came and left without warning, while something on the stovetop burned down to an unrecognizable lump of char. Give and Ye Shall Receive. “So I guess I can’t say.”
Dr. Roman raised her eyebrows again but this time, for once, the room was quiet.
* * *
The Pugelbone followed me home that day. I used to ask myself this but now I know: I invited it. Not with words, because I didn’t think it would understand those – but when I opened the door to go down below, I looked over my shoulder. You know, to see if it was coming. When I went down the metal staircase I could hear it shuffling after me, dropping its mass step to step. I thought I heard a muffled sort of panting but for all I know it could have been me. That stairwell was very close quarters.
I had never been followed before. Not even my little brother followed me. Not even the tiny brown mice that the crawl-space people hunted followed me, and I had even left them bread crumbs. I said to the Pugelbone, “I’m glad you’re here,” and its smile was like the curve of a rusty spoon. I could see the two of us running out of the Warren, over the plain and away. Not to the city. Just away.
I thought I would lose it in the street – someone kicked it, thinking it couldn’t feel pain, and I picked out a rock I had in my pocket and thrown it at the bastard – but when I got to our building and opened the door, the Pugelbone was right behind me, brushing up against my legs.
My brother was the only one home. He was drawing spiders on the floor where our mother usually stood to serve us dinner. He always liked spiders – he used to let whole packs of them crawl on his face when he was a baby, I don’t know why. He said, “Hi Lizzie,” and then kept on drawing. I don’t know if he saw the Pugelbone behind me, but Timot was always such a space cadet. When he was three he sat himself down in the middle of a street to pick up a marble and was nearly trampled by the passers-by. We found him wedged in the dirt, bruised and smiling. “Too stupid to live,” people said.
In the Warren, people will walk right into a space and take what’s inside. There is the assumption, if your door opens, that you are either generous or dead. So I stepped aside to lock the door. It was only for a second. Three seconds, at most. What none of us realized is that there are mouths everywhere, and they find their way around doors. You have no idea how many mouths there are in this world, and all of them are open. All of us are food.
I screamed, but Timot didn’t. I tell myself now that it happened too quickly for him to feel pain, but then I remember that his arms and legs were shaking – no, convulsing, slapping the floor so hard that I could feel the vibrations under my feet all the way on the other side of the apartment. I hope that he was already gone by then, and those were just the… twitches of a dying body. I heard a sound like someone sucking milk through a straw and I realized that the Pugelbone was drinking my baby brother dry.
The Pugelbone went up into the air duct and I lay down. I held his hand – I thought he’d want me to – but it was so limp, like an empty glove. There was blood tracked all over the floor and the wall, and as I lay there I thought to myself that the pattern read like some kind of message. But I don’t know what. I never figured out what.
* * *
The room shifted. Dr. Roman was calling.
“Was this really an accident?”
“Yes, it was a fucking accident! Don’t even ask me that!”
“But you said that you liked to break things.”
“No. No, no, no! That is not fair! I would never fucking hurt him! Look at the case file, it’s in the case file!”
“The case file only says that your brother was killed by an unknown entity. Later determined to be a Helix Warrencola. It doesn’t say anything about whether or not you manipulated the situation. And I don’t hold you responsible for that, Lizbet. You were a child. You were living in terrible conditions…”
Mother and Father had believed in the Warren, and cried when it was fumigated. Afterwards they’d wandered in and out of bungalows and parking lots, too old to build another life. “I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t know.”
“I’m going to recommend that the Department of Child Welfare wait a little longer before returning custody of your daughter to you.”
A “little longer” is not a schedule. A “little longer” is a young snake. This particular “little longer” was already five months long. When the Warren told the city that there were monsters in their walls, the “little longer” had stretched into a full, bloody year. “Tell me. Is there anyhing in that damn file that says I’ve ever hurt Marget?”
“But that’s the reason you’re here, Lizbet. You took Marget out of pre-school. Forcibly. You pushed her teacher’s head into a white board. That is not acceptable behavior for any parent.” Dr. Roman prodded the air with her chin. “Even a Meer.”
“There was a Pugelbone in that classroom. It was in a cubby hole, and it was looking straight at Marget. It was like the time I took her to the city zoo, to the cages where they keep the predators. Most of the animals are stoned off tranquilizers, but there was this long, skinny, yellow-black tiger that stared at Marget with a living hunger, you know? A mother knows.”
Dr. Roman sighed and glanced at the large clock on the wall. “We’ve already talked about this. You were hallucinating. You were stressed and you were tired and you’d been drinking the night before. Lizbet, sometimes I wonder if we’ve made any progress at all.”
Were there Pugelbones in the holding center? Government closets ran deep. “Okay, okay. Forget I said anything.”
“The Helix Warrencola is extinct. Do you understand? That’s already been confirmed. And even if there were a few surviving individuals, they’d be stuck in the landfill where the Warren used to be.” She leaned forward and whispered, because she was only trying to help, “I really don’t want to add paranoid personality disorder to this case file.”
Let Marget not be running, let Marget not be screaming. Let Marget be sitting quiet, playing cat’s cradle with herself. “Just tell me what I need to do. Please, if you just give me…”
“You aren’t ready, Lizbet.” The case file fluttered shut. “I’ll see you next month, same time.”
* * *
In dreams she had been consumed many times. On occasion it was an act of sacrifice, and she would see Timot and later Marget tottering away on little mushroom-stem legs. More often it was just an attack, sudden and meaningless. In grocery stores, in the factory break room. No safe place. She’d wake up slapping her stomach, trying to put herself back together.
From City Plaza, southbound traffic was non-existent. A raccoon-eyed woman in a coat of chinchilla got off the bus at St. Greta’s Hospital, and a pale man in a long tan raincoat got on. A wool scarf was wrapped under his chin so thoroughly that his neck looked like a swollen goitre. The bus was lurching forward when he sat down in the middle of the back row and placed his briefcase on his lap. Then he closed his eyes and sighed.
The small mass under his scarf began to tremble. His fingers pulled the scarf down and revealed a faceless knot of matter cradled in the wool, like a baby in a sling. It was latched onto the man’s neck, but it disengaged with a pop and turned its large red sucker toward Lizbet. Blood ran from the withered wound.
“What do you want,” drawled the man, scratching at his skin. “Goddamn Meer.”
Lizbet drew her knees up as fortresses and gnawed on her nails. The broad boulevard stretched through the half-empty city, blind and merciless, and on into the night.
(c) Nadia Bulkin, 2010.