“The Arbor tells us stories of a time before, when all the dead were kept in orchards that rolled endlessly, and had always been there, and people tended to them constantly in gratitude and respect for their ancestors.”
So begins The Seed and The Stone, a short story by Julian K. Jarboe published in The Fairytale Review, in which birth and death are irrevocably connected to the fertility of the land.
In that richly imagined world, single parents can create offspring from plant seeds. Couples might accidentally spoil the new batch of fermented children through over-brewing. Meanwhile, the dead become new trees and grace their descendants with the fruits of their wisdom, revealing the family customs and shortcomings. The dead are tended to by their children, who can eat the pickled fruits or drink the ciders they have made of their ancestors and, together, become one again.
The story’s young protagonist watches his two fathers continue their tight-knit community’s traditions, but he struggles with comprehending and internalizing their customs around births and funerals. When one parent dies, the other expects his son to continue their legacy, grow seedlings of his own for the good of the community. But the narrator is not interested in having children, which causes friction between him and his remaining father. Birth and death become an endless loop between soil, seed, and stone. Until, at last, the family’s differences are resolved by collapsing the boundaries between generations, and reverting to a time before sorrow took root.
Practices of alternate child creation are the central theme of Brian Evenson’s After the Animal Flesh Beings, a story that reads like a disturbing fairytale split in five parts.
A post-human community of automata is preoccupied with the acquisition of children—the creation of life in a world where new human growth has been snuffed out, and death is only understood in terms of disassembled parts and malfunctioning mechanisms, but mourned all the same.
“In the time in which we now find ourselves, we acquire our children by digging in the earth.” Unlike in Jarboe’s The Seed and The Stone, it’s not plant life that the synthetic beings find in the soil of the ruined city, but spare parts from a foregone world, where history is only half-recorded and parables create a new mythology around life cycles.
Disability plays a vital part in the stories the synthetic beings retell and preserve. Across the five tales, the creation of children is explored. Eager parents scavenge for components in the former human city, then give the metal parts to their robotic god to heat in his furnace and bring a child to life. Those children do not age; they are made in their creators’ image, but smaller; they die young, and live with less mobility and sensory input than the adults. Other children remain half-made, their missing parts deeming them undesirable in the eyes of the mystical robotic society. The children who do not meet their parents’ standards—malformed, as the synthetic beings refer to them, further establishing the fact that the missing humans have bequeathed them an ableist society—often get abandoned in the forest, or discarded and disrespected in other various ways.
Sometimes, the abandoned children come back. A thread of longing stretches between the synthetic parents and their children—a mirror-image to the robots’ grief for the lost animal-flesh beings who built them in factories, then left them behind. Who doomed them to forever seek new children, yet deprived them of the original means of creation. As they wrestle with their approaching extinction event, the synthetic beings desperately cling to the unattainable ideal of the perfect child and, in the meantime, mimic their own creators’ hubris.
Similarly to Evenson’s tale, children are no longer borne through traditional means in “Of the Body,” written by Eugenia Triantafyllou and published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. This time, it’s not a robotic god’s furnace or the ancestors’ botanical rituals that give society its children, but strange animals. An inherent queerness imbues the child-making process and blurs gender roles, since neither of the human parents are birthing parents, yet both experience couvade-like symptoms as their union spontaneously causes an animal to carry their child. Before birth, the expecting parents must hunt and kill the animal to cut their human child out. A lot of children die or become injured in the process.
But, while the narrator and their partner can feel their offspring growing inside their animal, another couple in their village extract their newborn child, who howls like a beast and longs for her animal mother’s slaughtered belly.
“We call it the Body. The collective body of nature.” Like in The Seed and the Stone, the ancestors in Of the Body are bonded with the land. The interconnectedness between the animal vessel and the human offspring becomes harder to extricate. The grown children struggle with the cognitive dissonance of knowing they belong to the human parents who killed the animal mother that cradled them. Eating the flesh of their own animal siblings for sustenance.
This cognitive dissonance crescendos once the community turns against the feral newborn, forcing the adult characters to go into exile, as well as contend with the birth/death practices of their people.
[image: Reiko Murakami @TOR]