"You must endure the pain," they said. "It's not more than what Christ endured on the cross," they said. I was five. They castrated me and tattooed my face. They had me pinned down, no drug to dull the pain. I screamed of course. I fainted. Most unfit boys do. The girls aren't so lucky. The unfit ones are killed just after birth, their eggs harvested and gutted of their DNA. Shells. The fit ones are killed too, but their DNA gets to live on intact.
I used to get into fights, in the long house, with the other boys. I bought into the social hierarchy. I don't do that anymore. Now I go for walks. Long walks.
"What you got there?" he asked.
"A book," I said.
"Yes, of course I read."
"Because it's interesting."
"Yes," I said.
"You want me to go away, I can tell."
"I don't know why you're interested in me," I said.
"I dunno. You're different I guess."
He was runt of man. His nose dribbled; he was constantly wiping his sleeve against his face. His eyes were bad. He squinted at everything. When he ate, his face was inches from the food, but he still ate with a fork. I don't know why he needed to see it. It seldom varied; very liquid mashed potatoes with overcooked ground meat, and a fluorescent pink nutritional supplement. The man sat down cross-legged beside me.
"Is it hard?" he asked.
"Is what hard?" I said, loudly turning a page.
"Not for me."
"How'd you learn?" he asked.
"I asked someone to teach me," I said. "A lot of older men here used to know. They're all dead now." He was silent for a moment, but rocking slightly. He wanted to ask another question but was afraid, I could tell. Then it came out.
"Could you teach me?" he asked. I looked over at him.
"I don't think your eyes are good enough," I said.
"Oh," he said. He stopped rocking and was very still. His hand twitched. He suddenly got up and walked to the far wall. He leaned into it with his shoulder and put his hand in his thinning hair. He turned away from me. I felt bad. It's a terrible thing to have ambition.
My cell is lined with books. They're stacked up in piles, which is not how they're supposed to be stored, but I don't have a lot to work with. They completely fill the cavities under the bunks. A pile of them form a table that I rest the toilet paper on next to the toilet. I do not share my cell with anyone. Or, it would be fairer to say that no one will share my cell with me.
We're not prisoners. But our housing is a former decrepit prison. You can smell the sweat of generations of men in the crumbling concrete. We can either live here, or out on the land, in the wilderness. I prefer a roof.
We're supposed to be working, but we haven't had a work order for months. Probably some bureaucratic nightmare involved. The elder brothers are awfully good at making plans for things, but are truly awful when it comes to executing them. They're even worse at figuring out problems. I can only imagine what the offices are like. Men in suits sitting around all day pontificating. Actually it's probably not that much different than what goes around here with us unfits when there aren't any work orders.
"You coming for chow?" asked a man named Cecil. He picked that name himself. He was tall and beefy so he was naturally repellent of any nicknames growing up.
"Me? No," I said. I was lounging on my bunk with a tattered and rotting copy of Critique of Pure Reason. I turned a page. A bit of the edge of it fell to brown dust on my freshly laundered overalls. I had gotten them dirty on one my recent walks.
"It's pizza night," said Cecil.
"Is it?" I said. I considered it. "No thanks," I said. They did that to us to keep us placated. Let us have something small to look forward to so we didn't look for bigger things to satisfy us. Cecil lumbered off down the hall. I closed the cell door so I wouldn't be disturbed again.
The next day a group of elders came to visit. They set up a small dais in the gymnasium. We dutifully filed in, hoping this meant a work order. We stood through a long prayer service. We put our hands on our chests and mumbled the anthem while they sang fervently. I watched the spittle spray from their lips as they zealously over-pronounced the consonants. Then the elder brothers talked about themselves for a while. I thought of other things. Then one of them said something that caught my attention.
"...collecting DNA tomorrow. Don't worry, it won't hurt. It's just a swab in your mouth..."
Later they struck down their dais and filed out. There was a lot of grumbling among the men because there was no new work order. There was a minor fight--more of a scuffle really. Then someone punched a window made of safety glass. The crack spidered out from the tiny hole he made with his fist. Some of the more easily amused unfits worried the pieces of glass loose, until, by the end of the evening, the entire pane was removed from its frame. The bits of glass disappeared in the hands of many unfits, shiny little treasures to be stuffed in secret crevices in the walls and under mattresses. A memory of that night when something interesting sort of happened.
"Why do they need our DNA?" asked Cecil. He was in my cell, thumbing through my books, looking at the cover illustrations. He liked to trace his fingers over the title lettering. He called it reading.
"That's an interesting question," I said.
"Do you know the answer?" he asked.
"Our society is DNA obsessed. It's tightly controlled. DNA is used for reproduction, and the elder brothers control every aspect of reproduction. It's all done in factories, in vats and incubators--"
"What's an incubator?"
"Don't interrupt," I said. "It's what you spent the first few months of your life in. Anyway...they have reproduction all squared away...at least on the surface. Perhaps there's a problem. Maybe the DNA of unfits could help solve that problem."
"You mean we could be elder brothers?" said Cecil, looking up from an embossed copy of Roughing It. I looked at him critically.
"You want that?" I asked.
"Well, yeah! Don't you?"
"No. Never saw the appeal."
"But they have all the luxuries. They have real houses. They have cars and servants. They have many man-wives. Don't you want the comforts in life?"
I sat up in my bunk, cross-legged, and leaned back against the cement block wall. I could feel the peels of paint flaking beneath my shirt as I adjusted my position. I stared at Cecil. It always made him a bit uncomfortable. He looked back down at the dirt-enhanced embossing, and rubbed his fingers slowly up and down the edge of the front cover.
"I just think that's weird, not to want something better," he said quietly. He lifted his fingers from the book and held them still, then said, "even though wanting is a grievous sin...Jesus forgive me." He bowed his head, gripped the book tightly and started rocking.
I stood and hopped off my bunk, and sat next to Cecil on the unowned bunk opposite mine.
"It's not a sin," I said, putting my arm around him.
"No, 'fraid not. You've been told a lie, or at least, a very stretched exaggeration. You suffer when you want, but that doesn't make it a sin. The elder brothers tell you that it's a sin because they don't want you to feel hurt."
"But it does hurt, when I try not to want," said Cecil. He was starting to tear up.
"I know," I said.
"So why does it hurt both ways?"
"Men have been trying to understand that for as long as we've been walking the Earth," I said. "I think it's just the way we are. Or maybe I'm simplifying things."
"No, that's good," said Cecil. He sniffled, then put the book down and picked up another.
"Anyway, we don't need man-wives," I said. "As unfits, we are all muted half-men. And we don't need houses, because we have a perfectly good one here, with food and company. And we don't travel, so we don't need cars. The only thing we lack is something to do, and I'm not sure that's a luxury."
"Do you like it here?" asked Cecil.
"Not any more than you," I said. "But I like it in there," I added, tapping the book Cecil held. We both smiled.
"There is another possibility though," I said, getting up and sitting back down again in my own bunk.
"The DNA swabs," I said. I leaned back against the cell wall and folded my hands in my lap.
"What about them?" asked Cecil.
"Identification," I said. "Perhaps one of us has done something very bad, and they need to find out who." I closed my eyes.
"You're doing that thing again, aren't you?" asked Cecil.
"Meditation," I supplied.
The next day the same group of elder brothers arrived with an additional group from the hospital. They set up three long tables in the gymnasium, and had us line up in three rows. Us unfits shuffled and sighed our way through the queue. I felt like gagging. Our subdermal barcodes were scanned, then a technician opened our mouths, inserted a long cotton swab, swirled it around the inside of our cheeks, then removed the swab and sealed it in a clear plastic container.
When it came my turn, I made a remark to the technician about his gloves.
"Pardon?" he said. There wasn't often conversation between unfits and elder brothers.
"Vinyl, am I right?" It was hard to talk in front of him. He nodded slowly. "You have a latex allergy."
"Are you implying I'm unfit?" he asked quietly but sternly.
"Not at all," I said, a hint of a smile turning up the corner of my mouth. I bowed low so he couldn't see the inside of my mouth. He jabbed the swab in, and did a quick side to side motion like he was ringing a bell. He jammed the swab into its container, then grabbed my shoulder and shoved me along.
Safely back in my cell I peeled out the layer of plastic wrap. I nicked it from the kitchen and it still had the blood from the ground meat of nameless, headless animal parts. Even if my cells had gotten on it, those animal cells would be considered a contaminated sample. The analyzing computer would throw out the result, and it would be doubtful if anyone would check out the anomaly. I flushed the plastic wrap down the toilet.
That night I went out on another long walk, and found another elder brother to toy with for a few hours, before hanging his dead body upside down from a tree like a sleeping bat. I'm sure the elder brothers probably misread some symbolism into that, but Vive la Revolution.