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art by Shot Hot Design

Our Drunken Tjeng

Nicky Drayden is a Systems Analyst who dabbles in prose when she's not buried in code. She resides in Austin, Texas where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required. You can see more of her work at www.nickydrayden.com.

***Editor's Note: Be forewarned: the imagery may be unsettling, some language would not fit at an elegant tea.***
With a fine bone knife I make my incision, cutting back the sticky membrane of Our Tjeng's hull. I slip my hand inside and carefully widen the tear until it's big enough for me to step through. Our Tjeng has blessed Kae and me with gills to breathe within his walls. The viscous liquid is clear and burns my eyes, tart and slick on my tongue.
He's drunk as always, Our Tjeng, our fathership. And yet he leads our flock across the stars. Him and his bulging, sick liver--big as a hundred men, and it shouldn't even be half that size. I swim towards Kae as she shaves tumor from flesh a slice at a time. Her firm muscles tense and flex beneath her hairless, pink skin. She cusses Our Tjeng, her words crisp even through the liquid.
I touch her shoulder. She startles.
"Your time is up," I tell her.
We're civil. There's too much at stake not to be. The flock cannot afford to lose another fathership, and Our Tjeng needs us caretakers to keep him functioning.
"Let me work beside you," she pleads. "There's plenty of tumor for the both of us."
I ignore her and set out my net to hold the hard, white tumor cuttings. Her own net already brims. An impressive haul for the day. With a haul like that, people will start noticing.
"It's my shift. You need your rest," I say.
"I feel fine." Kae smiles at me, fatty pieces of pink liver stuck between her teeth.
I cringe and try to ignore her. Try to keep my mind on the job. It's a good job, working the liver. Quiet work. "It's my shift, Kae. You need to go."
"For the good of all," she mumbles as she gathers the ends of her net together. She then pauses to press her hand against one of the black veins of Our Tjeng's hull. "Feel that, Li? Our Tjeng's heart is calling me. Soon you can have the liver all to yourself."
And then I'm alone. I inspect Kae's cuts, all precision. But I see the traces of her handiwork here and there, tucked so discreetly out of the way that no one but me would notice. A pit burns in my stomach at the thought of her eating of Our Tjeng's flesh, and yet Kae's steady hand is our crew's greatest asset. To turn her in would be a death sentence for our fathership. So I put up with her ways and ignore the taste of sick in the back of my throat.
Qiao's deathrite is highly attended. She stands proudly among her peers, and everyone shares kind words. We pretend not to notice the tremor in her hand as she sips ichor from a chalice made of Our Tjeng's bone. Qiao worked the heart for many, many cycles. Delicate work. Delicate hands. Work meant for the young, like Kae and myself.
Our fathership is stubborn. He refuses to make more caretakers because he thinks he is not sick. He is too drunk to notice that our crops are failing. Too busy enjoying the sexual pleasures of his flock to listen to our pleas.
Kae smiles at me as Qiao's blood is spilt and collected into vessels to ferment. They will be seeking her replacement soon.
Kae's hauls grow larger. She's strong, while the rest of us starve. There aren't nearly enough curds and florets to feed us all, and the fatherships are always fucking, making more mouths than we can support. I still hear the shrieks of the unborn in my dreams, though I've had several jobs since working the crèche. I'd slaughtered hundreds, thousands. Ripped them from their nesting sacks inside Our Tjeng's walls. Slit their throats, and drained their lifeblood to be returned to our fathership as wine. It's all a cycle. What we take from Our Tjeng, we give back to him in the end.
The liver is a fine job, an important job, but there is prestige in the heart. Many work the heart, because without the heart, there is nothing. As my stomach rumbles, I think of Qiao, and I envy the spirit in her eyes. I imagine her life, how her heartbeat became one with Our Tjeng's just as Our Tjeng's beat to the rhythm of the Universe. I think that I would like to replace Qiao, but I am weak, and Kae is strong.
I grit my teeth, but it is useless to stall. I know what must be done.
I make an incision in Our Tjeng's liver, a thin incision where no one will notice, not even Kae. Her cuts are precision, but I've known this liver twice as long. Our fathership's flesh passes my lips, stings my tongue. I chew greedily until the liver is pulp and slides down into my emptiness. I wait for shame to come, but it doesn't. I only feel the hunger I'd taught myself to ignore. And with my fine blade made from a sliver of Our Tjeng's ribs, I slice again.
Twenty of my heartbeats span one of Our Tjeng's, and yet we are as one. The feel of his great muscle beneath me brings the ultimate thrill, the boom-hiss of his heart's contraction like music shared between our souls. I'm still thin enough to work my way deep into the arteries, picking away plaque with my fine bone blade. My hand is steady even in his constricting embrace, even as my mouth grows slick at the sight of his throbbing pink flesh.
My peers compliment me on my strength, my endurance. While I am within Our Tjeng's heart, I make my pleas. I beg him for a bountiful harvest. I beg him to see that he is sick. I beg him to take the craving for his flesh away from me.
Word comes from the crèche that the unborn have filled Our Tjeng's walls. They say it is like a plague, bodies everywhere. They can't slaughter them fast enough. Bloodwine overflows from their vats, floods the halls, creeps into the walls, poisons our meager crops.
The cycle is breaking down. No one wants to admit it, but Our Tjeng might be going insane.
His heart strains.
I have not eaten for a week. I no longer have the strength to reach the deep pockets of plaque. Our fathership's heartbeats threaten to squeeze the life out of me. The great muscle is erratic. It scares me. Mocks my incisions. Threatens to jump up at my steady hand at the exact wrong moment so that it can bleed to death and be out of this misery.
After an exhausting double shift, I find myself at the liver. Desperate. Kae greets me with a scowl.
"Go away," she seethes. Her eyes have lost their luster. Her muscles have atrophied. She has lost touch with her dream, or rather, I'd stolen it from her. "Go back to your heart. You're not needed here."
"All organs are important," I tell her. "None is above another. They work together in harmony." But we both know that this is a lie.
"I only wish for a small taste," I finally admit. "I'll cut it myself and then be gone."
"Rot in fathership's bowels," she curses me.
"Please," I beg of her. "It's for the good of all. The heart is not well." I unsheathe my fine bone knife and approach the liver. Kae draws her knife to my throat. We all work the crèche in the beginning. We all know how to kill.
"Leave," she commands me.
I can almost feel the gristle of liver between my teeth. I'm ravenous. Maybe I'm going mad myself, but I can't help but think that there's enough here to feed hundreds. Even as sick as Our Tjeng's liver is, it will still regenerate.
"How can we be caretakers if our fathership refuses to hear our pleas?" I whisper to her, our little secret for now. "If he will not provide us with what we need, then maybe it is our duty to take it."
Kae's knife slices through my soft, pink flesh, and my blood muddies the clear liquid between us. The first cut is precise as always, a long arc from shoulder to hip, but it is not deep. I know she will not be so generous with the second.
A sane person would leave. A less sane person would fight. But I choose a third option and lunge for the liver. With two quick flicks of my wrist, I hold a chunk of Our Tjeng in my palms. Kae gasps at the sight of the gaping hole, probably sure she will be blamed.
The meat is so foul on my tongue, yet so sweet. Kae tries to steal it from me, her hands tearing off small bits which she shoves into her own mouth. A moment later, we lock eyes as we realize how stupid it is to fight over this one scrap when there is plenty here for the both of us.
Our pink bellies are bloated when Enlai comes to replace Kae for his shift. I have misplaced my knife, as evidenced by the long ragged gashes in Our Tjeng's liver in the shape of my fingers.
"It is all right," I tell him. "There's enough here for you, too."
Kae and I smile at Enlai. His cheeks bulge at the sight.
But we know that it will never be all right. The cycle is broken, and we are the only sane ones left.
Our blood is not spilled. There are too few caretakers left to afford us that luxury. Instead Kae and I are sent to the crèche to help with the slaughter.
With a fine bone knife, I make my incision, cutting back the sticky membrane of Our Tjeng's hull. My hand is not steady. I am not careful. This is not a job that requires precision. I rip the tear until it's big enough for me to step through. Our Tjeng has cursed me with gills to breathe inside his walls. The viscous liquid is murky and is filled with the shrieks of the dying.
I am efficient at this job. I kill three with one cut. I try for four, but it's too tricky. Kae says that she can do four. She's still strong, while I am weak. I think she eats from the flesh of the dead, but it is hard to tell. She never smiles anymore.
Inside the walls of Our Drunken Tjeng, I see that one of the nesting sacks is not like the others. Inside stirs an unborn caretaker with soft pink skin and gills like my own. I wonder if our fathership heard my pleas after all. I wonder if he's admitted to himself that he is sick. If he wishes to escape from his madness.
This I cannot allow. With my fine bone knife, I slit the caretaker's throat. If I cannot be one with his heart, then Our Tjeng and I will be one in our madness, and together we'll exist in harmony with the Universe.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Author Comments

This story was born thanks to an interesting mash-up of several writing prompts which included the words hairless, slaughter, mechanical failure, birds of prey, and liver, plus bonus points for putting the character between a rock and a hard place. There's nothing crueler than sticking a character in a cycle that's collapsing in on itself with no hope for escape. I don't envy Li's situation, but I enjoy being beside her as she makes tough decisions, and I hope the reader does, too.

- Nicky Drayden
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