I knew instantly he was my son though I hadn’t seen him since he was a child, running away from me as I chased him with a diaper, his feet padding on the floor like dinner rolls, his laughter skipping across the air like dragonflies. Even as a child, there was a whisper of the man he would become. A solid, bull of a child who could climb before he could walk.
He had grown into a beast, larger across the shoulders than the length of my arm. Solid. Strong. All of the were, really. All of the soldiers standing together. That one in the corner, I called Hercules. That one Goliath. The one on the left, Titan. But my son, my own baby was over to the side, just as large and just as intimidating but wearing the skin I gave him and smiling his father’s smile.
A jittery feeling fluttered in my chest like the wings of a butterfly. I glanced down at the ground and then back up again. And they had all stopped in those few seconds as if on cue. Silence settled over the room like a pall. A hush that was initiated by no one and everyone. All eyes fixed on me. Staring. Curious.
When I first walked up to the barracks, the noise inside was deafening. A storm of sound. A squall of animals. The guttural shouts of men egging each other on. A large group of them stood in a circle, cots pushed out of the way as they pummelled the men in the center with their noise. Fists pumped the air. Goliath jumped up and down in his excitement.
A push up contest. Two men in the center of the circle, bodies hard as planks, arms thick and ropy pushing up and up as the others added weight to their back. A mason block. A chair. Shouting out the number of push ups and clapping as the combatants pushed their bodies up, over and over, arms quivering, faces red.
Most of the soldiers stood in the shouting group, but I saw that some of them were on the fringes. These were the lost ones, the ones who had nothing to grasp hold of in this ocean of men. The discards.
One soldier sat quietly, tracing a picture on his arm in ink, small, blue streaks shaped like commas, each one pointing away from the center as if he were tracing the way the stars moved in the night time sky. One soldier stood in a corner, muttering into his hand and moving his arm around in front of him in a sideways figure eight, the symbol of infinity. The never-ending number. Another sat on his cot with his head in his hands, a man sculpted out of marble, perfect, grey as the floor under his feet. Rigid as stone.
And here, I found my son, in a sea of men all wearing camouflage cargo pants and black tank tops. Each one a copy of the others. The same, but different.
I didn’t think I’d recognize his face.
And yet I knew him.
If not for the mass of flesh bulging on his frame I might have been looking into his father’s face. Even the odd way he held one shoulder higher than the other. The pillows of his earlobes, his widows peak pointing down the length of his nose. The brick of his jaw, the small channel dividing his chin. The scar on his forehead where he bumped it on my kitchen counter so many years ago leaving a strawberry shaped smear of blood on the edge of the wood. The blood was wiped away but the scar was still there. Did he remember where it came from? Did anyone ask him?
He looked over to me. And I saw the color of my own eyes staring back. Strange to see my eyes in the face of someone so familiar and so distant. I could read no emotion on his face. No expression. Maybe it’s true what they said, that they wouldn’t feel things the way we did. And maybe that was one of the lies we were told to atone for making them less than human. When you poke a stick at a dog over and over, it will finally bite. And we blame the dog for biting but is it not the fault of the tormenter?
I rubbed my hands down the front of my rumpled shirt, smoothing out the lines I didn’t have a chance to iron. We didn’t have any electricity in our flat again, an occurrence that was happening more and more frequently. Over the hip of my pants, a strand of thread floated away from its seam and left an opening almost the length of my hand. I hoped he wouldn’t see it. Holes gaped open on the sides of my shoes where the leather had come away from the soles. But I hadn’t had new shoes in three years and the constant plodding around the Republic’s walled streets had left them impoverished. The shoes of a pauper. The footsteps of destitution.
Damn, he looked like his father. Solid like a cinderblock. But so were all of the soldiers. I had never seen them close like this. They sometimes had parades at the stadium but I was always up in the stands wondering which one was Sam as they swayed in and out of formations on the field. Immense dancers moving in time, holding graveyards of the dead on their soiled hands in a place where no one’s hands are clean. Shouts of anger. Roars of weapons. Fireworks. Everyone loved the tattoos.
I had never seen them up close, these guardians of the Republic. From the Stadium stands they looked like toys, like a line of ants on a log. Mechanical gears in a machine. Miniscule men encapsulating all our hopes. Fearless formations.
But in that room, almost face to face, I could see how immense they were, almost unhuman in their stature. Mammoths. Bodies so large, their heads looked almost comically meager in comparison. All of them stood a foot taller than me, maybe two.
As if on cue, all the other soldiers, one by one, stood up. An unnatural quiet fell over them like the sound of the wind in the distance, the longest pause before the thunder, like an exhale. They turned their heads on thick necks and looked at me. But I couldn’t make myself meet their gaze. I closed my eyes for a moment and rubbed the side of my head where it was aching and tried not to remember the tap, tap, tapping of his small feet on my kitchen floor in the dim recesses of my memory.
I had gone to the placement offices of the Republic to find him but no one was interested in helping me. They gave me paperwork to fill out but when I handed it in, they said it was the wrong paperwork. I said it was the paperwork I was given. They said no one would ever give me that paperwork at the office. So, I was passed on. I went to another office but there was a sign on the door that said they were all out sick. When they finally opened up again, they didn’t know the proper paperwork, said no one had ever asked before. I was sent to another location where I sat for two hours just to make an appointment and then came back at the agreed upon date only to be told they no longer assisted with requests of that nature.
I finally went to the office where Russel and I originally made our donation. We were so excited to go through the doors, holding hands, our dreams coming true, our hearts ready to accept a child even if only for a few years. I was surprised to see the same woman in the office who had been there so many years ago. Her hair was covered over in a wig like so many of the older women. And such an odd shade of yellow like watered down bile. Most people had wigs of brilliant colors that could be seen from a distance. Like the beacons on the walls of the city. Acid greens and oranges. But hers was dull yellow, almost the color of dirty teeth, the dim shade of lost hope, the drug addict’s smile.
She remembered me. Or so she said. She took my hand into hers and I could feel the dryness of her transparent skin, blue veins running crookedly just under the surface.
“You’ve been looking a long time haven’t you?” She stroked the back of my hand.
I nodded, crawling into the softness of her voice.
“It will not be easy. Many people will want you to forget that part of our history. As if when we look away, we can make it disappear.”
I was spellbound by her low tones, the slowness of her words, the way her lips moved smoothly from a smile to a kiss. She took one hand and waved it in front of her, directing her sounds like the base notes of an orchestra.
“But don’t let them turn you away.” She waved a finger in front of me. A mother admonishing a child. Point, point, point.
She had a large ring on her finger. A diamond. A real diamond I think, not like the fakes we see so often, scratches on the surface of the glass, pink or green coloration. She had a real diamond, clear and bottomless. A ring that was stolen from the fingers of the dead and smuggled into the walls of the Republic. Probably the most luxurious thing she owned. Something she might be killed for.
She knew where to get my answers. And she slipped a piece of paper into my hands with an address. I thanked her, walking away, rolling the paper over and over until it was a pulpy wad sitting in the basin of my hand. After spreading it out on the surface of my counter at home, I could just make out the street number. It was so close by. Right around the corner.
The office was unmarked, of course. Maybe people like me weren’t supposed to find it. I walked up to the desk and was told to take a seat in the waiting room where the carpets were worn through showing brown wood underneath in various places, near the door, in front of the desk, under my feet. The stale smell of cigarettes. The lonely color of despair.
The letters on her name tag spelled-ARGE although I suspect it was Marge but the “M” had long since rubbed off. She was wider than she was tall. Her billowy hair, perched on her head like a tombstone, its half round shape sprayed stiff and falling down in a cascade of artificial curls over her shoulders, like palm leaves unfolding. Each strand rigid and sinewy, colored red like blood.
“You shouldn’t, you know.” She wiped the end of her nose with her hand and then cleaned it off on the hip of her flowered dress. “It’s better to just leave them be.” Over the fabric of her dress, the large daisies had discolored with too many launderings. Fabric thin, a button missing near her navel where her flesh pillowed out. I imagined that she no longer had hair under her wig, picturing in my mind the surface of her scalp with just a few strands sticking up stiffly like the surface of a coconut. Thick glasses covered over her pink rimmed eyes almost hidden under bulging puffs of flesh from her eyelids. And none of that stopped her from liberally applying blue eye shadow spreading it all the way up to her eyebrows and stopping abruptly.
“That’s what everyone says. I just, you know. I can’t. I can’t leave it.”
“Whatever.” She cracked her neck to one side like a knuckle rapping on wood, hard as a question mark. Short. Punctuated.
She pushed the form over for me to sign. “You got any Anodyne?”
“No.” I took the paper and signed my name and gave it back to her. “I don’t use that stuff.” But I could see the Anodyne on her body. She wore it in the dry skin of her forearms. And in the wateriness of her lips, saliva smudging her lipstick like she was fresh from the kill. An animal deep into a carcass and coming up for air.
She sniffed and wiped her nose again. “That’s too bad. I guess it’ll be 20,000 rand for the search then.”
“So much?” 20,000 rand was all I had. I took it out of my wallet, the paper, fragile like an onion skin, the edges nibbled away. I pushed the soft, rustle of bills over to her and watched all the meals I’d eat for the next month slowly fade into nothing.
“Be a couple of weeks.” She wandered away from the desk with the money, the soft fat of her hips rolling like ocean waves as she moved. I imagined she had a child or two of her own. Maybe one of the last ones. I imagined the money would find a way to line her pockets.
And for a wonder, she was right about the time. Two weeks later I stood in my flat holding the small postcard in my hand with his name and address written on the back. The front of the postcard showed a family at the ocean. A clean ocean, no plastic, no oil spills. A clean beach, none of the grey animals pecked apart by birds, no marks of imminent death. The picture was a throwback to a time when visits to the beach were normal. A piece of fiction in our city where no ocean existed and precious few families.
We all wanted that vacation and none of us got it. I imagined for a minute that the mother and the child in the picture were me and my son, gaily traipsing along the sand, smiling and feeling the cold salt water on our toes. But I hadn’t seen him since he turned 5 and we turned him over to the Third Generation for the good of the Republic. I thought I’d never see him again. I thought I’d done my duty, a black promise made in the depths of my ignorance. My undoing. My downward spiral.
But I found him, here, in this room.
And he knew who I was.
The eyes of the soldiers were on me. Large men bred for aggression and strength to defend the Republic in a war that never happened. I wanted to run my cowardly little heart away from them and continue hiding my head under my wing, continue telling myself the lies they fed me on the day he was born. But I came all this way. And this might be my last chance to speak.
“Hi Sam.” I stepped forward. My voice cracked and I cleared my throat.
He looked at the soldiers and then back at me. “Women aren’t allowed here.” He said.
So, I stepped back into the hall and waited for him to cross the room.
The others half heartedly went back to their activities, sneaking peaks at us over their shoulders, whispering amongst themselves and then looking back at me. Inspecting me. Furtive. Unsure if I were the enemy or not. Little did they know, we were all the enemy.
“I don’t know why you came?” He walked up to me and spoke these words out of my husband’s strong jaw, looking down at me from a height of six foot eight at least. These were gladiator men, men of brawniness. Made of steel. Manufactured for war.
“I wanted to see you.” I said, fanning my eyelids like a moth, not wanting my tears to fall.
“None of the other donors came.” He said.
I looked around when the talking had ceased again. Earnest eyes were trained on us from the far side of the room. As I met their gaze, they quickly returned to their push-ups, more quietly this time, and the whispering started again.
“I didn’t come here to embarrass you. I just wanted to see you. I don’t think I can explain.”
“So, how’s dear old Dad?”
“He…he…” I stumbled. “What did they tell you Sam?”
“My name isn’t Sam, it’s J55057.”
“That’s not the name we gave you.”
He stood silently looking down for a moment. “They call me Scout. I have the best eyesight so they send me out front to look for Out-liers.” He looked back at the other soldiers who looked away again. “Although, we haven’t done that in a long time.” He shrugged.
“OK, Scout it is.” I said quietly. “Any idea what you’re going to do when the army dissolves?” I’m not sure how much he knew about the Generations of soldiers who went before him. The grey ones with missing arms and legs. The eyeless, the burned. the scarred, the paralyzed. I don’t know if he understands what happened to those people when they were no longer convenient. They used to beg on the streets, living in a shanty town on the outskirts of the Republic. And then they just disappeared one by one. I haven’t seen any in five years or more. Rumors abounded about a place of conclusions where they incinerated the remains of the soldiers put down to avoid their misery. Their misery or ours, I was never sure which.
“Actually, I don’t think we’re going to disband.” He drew his mouth into a half smile, and he lit up like a lantern from the inside, like the last hope of the condemned.
His childishness saddened me. “I’ve been hearing rumors though.” I looked at my massive son in front of me. His sturdy neck thick as a tree, head squared off with a buzz cut sitting close to his scalp, soft and hard at the same time. “They can’t keep you on the payroll forever you know.”
“They’re building that new facility on the Southern part of the city. You probably saw it.”
“I heard it was a hospital.” I wanted to reach out and touch his face. Clean shaven, it would have been soft as a calf’s skin. Soft like it used to be when he was still young enough to think I meant him no harm, his small face smiling up at me from the length of his arm. The warm red color of his love.
“It’s for a new program.” He nearly smiled and I caught a glimpse of the dimple that I didn’t even remember he had. Years ago, as I handed him over to a nurse and watched him walk away, he turned and smiled at me and that same dimple appeared. He reached his hand around and licked at a lollipop they had given him to bribe him away. He waved his baby hand at me. I didn’t want him to be scared so I forced a smile and waved back, waiting until his back was gone to wipe away the tears. And I fell on the ground, Russel rubbing my back. “Come on home honey. Come on home.” But there was no home left without him. And I would spend the balance of my life punishing myself for the poison words I fed to him on that day.
“You mean, they’re making a fourth generation?” I took a deep breath and put my hand on my chest.
“It’s going to be different this time.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“Well, it looks like they’ll need some of us to police it and I’m on the short list.”
I nodded my head, not sure if it was true but not wanting to be the one who told him what his fate would be if it wasn’t.
I took a deep breath. “Your father died.” The words came out awkwardly, much louder than I meant for them to be. Two of the soldiers looked up as I spoke.
“Yeah, I figured.” He looked down at his shiny, leather boots, their thick soles, the perfectly symmetrical bows at the top, tongue lolling out and pointing at his toes. His hands sat on his slim hips. Strong hands, callused and lined with veins. “I don’t really remember him.” Scars covered his forearms, scars like the end of a cigarette dragged over his skin. Two of his fingernails were broken and blood clotted like a tiny string of beads seeping through the crack.
“He always wanted to see you.”
“I wasn’t hiding you know. I’ve been in this shit pit for years.”
“You’re right. We should have come to visit. They seem to discourage it for some reason.” My hands were held out, two begging bowls waiting for the alms of his mercy. “When you’re donating, they don’t explain how it will affect everyone.”
“But you could have asked. You could have. You’re a grown woman who gave her son away to be raised by strangers. The injections were the least painful of the things they did to us.”
“I was young. I didn’t know how it would be.” I placed my hands on my temples, berating myself for believing them. “We needed the money and they paid well. We really couldn’t picture a baby until after we had you but by then we already signed the papers.”
“You didn’t know how it would be? You knew they were engineering an army. You knew they’d mold us into killers.” He leaned forward. “They shut us in water tanks and timed how long it took for us to drown so they knew how long we could last without air. And then, they put us in that water tank once a week to train us to stay alive. They shot us in both legs and made us run so they could see which were the strongest. And then we had to follow the scent of the injured soldier’s blood and find him and kill him with our bare hands so we could learn how to hunt like animals.”
I took a deep breath. “We didn’t think.”
“Damn right you didn’t think. That’s why I’m here.” He pointed the meatiness of his blame into my face, red with anger. “Because you didn’t think.”
His voice became quiet and he leaned towards me, close enough to blot out the light. “Do you know what happens to little boys when there’s no one to defend them?” His voice quiet and shaking, subdued by an aria of pain. A chained memory released for one moment.
I pressed the back of my hand to my mouth and couldn’t breathe. “Oh God.” I whispered. “They said that you wouldn’t feel things like the others, that you would be engineered to feel nothing.”
“They lied.” He stepped backwards into the room. “Look, this is over and I can’t leave so you’re just going to have to see yourself out.” He waved his hand and stepped sideways, his eyes looking away.
“Can I come back and see you?”
He said nothing. And I didn’t know what to say either. I didn’t want to leave him. I finally said “You look just like your father,” and I turned and walked away.
I wiped my hands down the front of my shirt, angry at the creases in the fabric, the stitches that pulled away from the seams, the holes worn through. Angry that the men saw me in my poverty, draped with shades of despair and loss.
The hallway was silent as I walked out. Were they talking about me? Were they condemning me? I tried to walk quietly but the only sounds were my feet falling on the stone floor. I listened to the sound swelling in my sinful ears.
Everything in this place was grey, the walls, the blankets, the cots, the floors. The color of a secret. The color of a sigh. The coldness of a puff of air on a winter morning. The silent farewell.
And my feet, tack, tack, tacking along the ground like Morse code rapping out the supplication I was too afraid to speak.