by Kevin Wilson
“Infants have no natural depravity, no inevitable tendency to squall and rage…”
-Catherine Owen, Scribner’s Monthly, November 1879
We were born clinging together, a slippery mass of tiny bones. The nurses had to tease the eight of us apart with tweezers, unlatching our fingers from around each other’s throats.
We were kept in eight separate cribs, deprived of animal heat. The cribs were made of iron and were oval-shaped. We were yolks within the eggs, once again forced to smash our way out of our surroundings. Our parents had the iron artificially aged and weathered so that the rust would dissuade us from trying to chew our way to freedom. The mattresses were covered with a thick, India-rubber sheet and that was strewn with bran, to keep us warm, to soak up whatever leaked out of us, and for sustenance when we grew ravenous. At night, instead of sleeping, we watched each other through the slats of the crib. If one of us nodded off, the rest would howl until they snapped awake. Stillness was sleep for us; it was the most we would allow ourselves so as not to lose the anger we needed to stay alive.
On our birthdays, mother and father would prepare a gift for each of us, the same gift. We would find eight wrapped presents and open them to discover eight identical dolls, eight exact replicas of a civil war rifle musket, eight pairs of baseball cleats. We would sit in a row and pass these gifts around, searching for something that made them distinct from one another. We dug our fingers into these gifts for the better part of the day, eschewing cake and punch, wanting only to be the child who found a flake of gold embedded in the wood grain of the rifle or the dust of a diamond in the doll’s hair. We put on our baseball cleats and took turns stomping on each other, hoping that one pair would have sharpened spikes.
Throughout the year, we would steal these gifts from each other, so that, at any time, someone was without their gift while another would have a surplus. We did not begrudge anyone when we were without our toy. We knew that, some day, we would steal it back. We would use a knife or a soldering iron to mark it, so that others would know that we had once possessed the thing they now claimed as their own. Our parents, mystified, would skip Christmas altogether.
We called them whaling trips, our father marching us into the room he had built solely for the purpose of punishment.
The room was bare except for a riding crop hanging from a nail in the wall, a forty-watt light bulb hanging from the ceiling. He would not line us up or punish us one at a time. Rather, he would take the riding crop, testing its leather tongue against his calves, and then, licking his fingers before he reached for the switch, turn off the light.
In the dark, the eight of us initially unwilling to move from our spots, hoping to avoid detection by inaction, we would wait as we heard the sound of the crop slitting the air, our muscles tensing uncontrollably, until the crop finally made contact with one of us. Sparks would fly off our bodies, but not enough light to see where our father was, where he was moving next.
After that first whipping, we would bounce off the walls, scrambling over each other, trampling ourselves to remain out of our father’s reach. The damage of one of our own elbows slamming into each other, running straight into the wall so hard we could not breathe, was sometimes worse than the times our father’s crop broke against our skin. Only sometimes.
After enough time had passed to satisfy him, our father would turn on the light, return the crop to its hanging place, and leave us in the room for another thirty minutes, the room filled with the heat and sour smell of our unspoken curses.
We would compare our wounds, running our tongues along each other’s welts and bruises. We originally believed that, if we had been evil enough, our saliva would cure us of the punishment we’d received. It turned out to be false hope, but we enjoyed the sensation so much, our rough tongues probing the injuries we’d most certainly deserved, that we let it continue as a ritual.
Our bodies licked clean, we would wait until our father opened the door to the room, a wide smile on his face, and we were again unleashed upon the world, no wiser, not the least bit wiser, already anxious for the next chance to prove we could not be deterred from what we’d known since the day we’d been born. If we had to absorb any number of beatings in order to extinguish the sun, so be it. We would not let something as ridiculous as our own pain keep us from ruining everything.
On our eighteenth birthday, our father died and our mother became, effectively, a ghost. Her grief over our father’s unexpected death and the thought of being the sole caregiver for the eight of us, turned her so incorporeal that the family lawyer assumed she was actually dead as well and turned over the estate to us.
We found, absent our parents, absent the nagging desire to have them all to ourselves, that we did not hate each other nearly as much as we once thought. We found that, if we pressed ourselves together in order to make a fist, it was a pleasant sensation that we wanted to experience over and over again. We still accepted the possibility, perhaps even the fact, that we would each be responsible for the deaths of the others, but we thought it a much more gentle and desired end than what had befallen our mother and father, snuffed out for reasons that were so arbitrary that they might not have been alive in the first place. If not for us. If not for the eight of us, their legacy. If not for the eight of us and all of their money now in our possession and the finest knives and guns and whips that this money could buy. If not for these things, we would have believed that we had birthed ourselves, had willed each of us into existence.
We hated each other’s wives and husbands and lovers. We hated our own wife and husband and lover. We chose them because they accepted the terms of habitation, since we would not leave each other and the house, and because they showed some facility for violence or danger. We fell in love, and quickly out of love, with lion tamers and bare-knuckled brawlers and fire breathers. We would marry them, and, to our disappointment, the first time we bit into their skin, they recoiled from us. We were angrier than any death they could imagine. They sat at a separate table from the eight of us during meals. We ignored them until they filed the proper forms and left our sight, replaced by someone else who thought they could tame us.
We could not, despite our constant rutting, sire or produce a single child. Each ejaculated sperm turned instantly into a spark; each egg imploded before fertilization could occur. We dreamed that each one of us would give birth to eight children and we would have an army at our disposal, that we would spread across the country until we ruled it all.
Eventually, we outlived everyone we ever knew, every single person we had punched in the face. We did not recognize ourselves; we were so old. Our bodies still worked and our minds still constantly hummed the sound, “kill, kill, kill” but we were wrinkled, which was unsettling. When we slapped each other, our hands ached for days afterwards.
Our money, our parents’ money, was almost gone. The walls of the house were defaced with the jagged imprints of heavy objects thrown with great conviction. The floors were covered with dead mice, stomped into impermanence by our baseball cleats. If you slammed your shoulder into one of the corners of the house, the whole thing would topple over.
How had so much time passed, so many years stripping our body of the oil we needed to keep going, and we had still not blown up the entire world? How did everyone still exist? How was it possible that we could die but everyone else would keep living? How would we die? All at once, a flash of lightning? One at a time, until the last of us was left abandoned by those too weak to continue? We could not think of these things for long without growing so intensely angry that we took father’s riding crop and whipped each other until we were once again calm and bruised.
We could understand that the world would end, but not that we would die. It seemed scientifically and philosophically impossible.
Still alive, we dug as far down into the earth as we could manage. We stripped off our clothes and kissed and bit and punched and then, when we could not love or harm each other anymore than we already had, we set the charges and let the dirt around us come falling down like the sky. We buried ourselves alive and waited, our bodies touching each other, the only people we had ever hated and loved in the right amount. We waited for our bodies to vibrate with such force that the earth cracked open and swallowed everything that had ever or would ever exist. We waited until we became the end of the world and, our air exhausted, our bodies crushed to dust, the world finally ended.
Kevin Wilson is the author of a story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, and a novel, The Family Fang. He lives in Sewanee, TN, and teaches at the University of the South.