Alex DeBonis teaches fiction writing, journalism and literature at Bethel University in West Tennessee, and his work has appeared in > kill author, FictionDaily, Word Riot, eclectic, Storyglossia, and Cincinnati CityBeat. Though from the Midwest originally, he lives with his wife and son in Paris, Tennessee, home of the World’s Biggest Fish Fry.
Read by Patrick Crawford
Days in the nursery are awash in milky light. Figures gowned in white and gray move among the metal cradles. I glimpse the other boys only occasionally since I cannot, as yet, lift my head. To my left is an infant they named Alastair, but I’ve decided his name is Dub. (It’s hoped we’d have a tendency for creativity.) They call me Blake. We have a Charles. A Desmond. An Edgar and so on to Zachary.
The head nurse, with the face of a bloke, regards me with cold Irish Sea eyes. A young nurse stops to look on as well. “He’s a right big one. Looks strong.”
“Strong’s not the problem.” The head nurse shakes her head. “They’re all strong. It’s cardiac atrophy that does ‘em all in.”
“His heart will harden like a walnut, they say.”
A silent nod from the head nurse. “War has many casualties. Not all are on the field of battle.”
Dressy-sounding phrase, that. “Field of battle.” An emerald green pitch comes to mind. Ruled lines and sportsmanship. We might be breeding cricket champions here.
The young nurse lifts Dub to change his diaper. He waves his arm stiffly. It could be a signal, alerting me, saying “Hullo! Are you my kind?” Or it could be random and mean nothing. I cannot respond; the only way I wave is for painless spasms to fire up my arm. Perhaps Dub can operate his arm, can wave. Hard to say. This program has lots of unpredictable effects.
He’s probably just a normal drooling infant, flailing at the pale light. I can’t tell. More fully formed vocal cords would allow me to talk. I can only grunt and coo. Had my leg and neck muscles thickened and grown strong like my mind, I could stroll over and observe, gather facts. Information is spotty; that is my dilemma. As it is, I am marooned in ignorance unless a nurse holds me aloft for inspection by generals wearing epaulets.
We’re paraded past the generals’ mustachioed faces as if they are proud parents. They size us up and question the nurses, looking for the higher cognitive abilities they’d hoped for. They want us to be quick adapters, to possess a knack for problem solving, to acquire language swiftly, and—above all—to excel in military tactics. That’s why, twice a week, they have nurses project battlefield strategy notes on the ceiling. That’s why the blood of either a British war hero or a chess master flows in my veins.
The head nurse is right. There are casualties here, far from the front. I sometimes see our reflections in the spotless black-tiled floor—the dull shine of the cradles in the cloudy light, the nurses’ feet wisping beneath frayed hems. It’s easy to imagine that our hazy forms down there are our counterparts from a shadowy Berlin nursery where infants’ airways are cleared with brusque Teutonic slaps to their bums. I know; I hear the generals talk.
Fat from guzzling buttermilk and tingling from chemical growth accelerants plunged into their thighs, the Berlin babies are products of an exacting eugenics program. Likely as not, forced breeding. What the Nazis are doing on their end has had to be pieced together from three scant reports received before our spy was caught and executed. Since the Germans are doing it, we must also. May not want to, but we must and better. Genetic zugzwang, really. Playing against nature, we are, with horrid odds.
But our fears of these Aryan supermen, fears that prompted this very program, may be greatly misplaced. The generals and nurses don’t know what I know.
If our necks, arms, and tongues worked, we would leave this place, carry out an escape that would leave no trace. Swaddle ourselves in dirty blankets and wait on the doorsteps of nearby farms. Farmers in overalls stiff with dirt would find us and we’d live out our lives among chicken houses and hay bales. The generals would learn that babies, even if they possess remarkable strategizing ability, have no national pride. We are only members of a Nation of Infants who babble in precisely the same language regardless of borders, and nothing more. With nothing to fight for, we have nothing to live for.
The key to military strategizing is predicting what the other side will do. I’ve done this. It’s a grievous error—our Third Reich counterparts assuming their children will march off human assembly lines like Panzers on foot. No doubt their infants are reaching the same conclusions we are. They will consider their options, their inability to escape, the consequences of their program. The consequences of ours. Lying prostrate with nothing but the ceiling and battle maps to stare at, the Berliners will likely realize they can hold their breath until their pulses drumbeat in their temples. They’ll learn the beat can be slowed, stopped with great concentration. Just as those before us here in England have learned. A byproduct of selective fertilization, this ability. Little-known but useful when you want to bow out of the war gracefully.
Unbidden, my head lolls to the left and there is Dub, his arm extended and waving his white cotton sleeve like a flag of surrender.