Francis Beetborn stands on a raft in the center of a lake. He is six feet tall and his sunstarved skin is unblemished, save a mole buttoning his chin, from which springs a silver hair. His wife Lucille sits at his feet with her back to him, legs strewn straight before her. She is her husband’s identical: both wear matching plain black suits, starched crisp. Black bowler hats sit snug atop their heads, hiding their hair. Mustard handkerchiefs peer from their jacket pockets. A zephyr sweeps across their noses and in unison their toothcomb mustaches twitch.
Their daughter Juniper, twelve years old, dozes on her side at the opposite end of the raft, knees against her chest, shrouded in an ivory dress. Her hair, brown sewn with amber, cascades over her shoulders. At her head sits a light brown satchel.
Stretched along the floor is Francis’ father atop a tarpaulin, naked and decomposing: he has been dead for a month. He has been coated with honey to allay the rot, but for the evening’s ceremony Lucille has wiped him clean. A thousand gnats swarm about the carcass and gnaw at its tissue. Pulsing in dissolution beneath the feed, that which had been the eldest Beetborn almost appears alive.
Francis surveys the scene. Endless woods encircle the lake, a wall of trees obscuring all vision of the land beyond. Everything is calm and no other people can be spotted. He nods and calls to Juniper:
Juniper stirs and stretches her arms. Rubbing her eyes, she croaks:
“How much longer?”
“Right now,” Francis answers. “So get on your feet.”
Juniper hoists herself upright and smoothens her dress. She clasps her hands together before her waist and unites her fingers. After clearing his throat, Francis begins the statement he has prepared:
“So we come to say goodbye to papa: a man who lived completely for his loved ones.”
From his pocket he brandishes a chalky purple pill.
“And in saying goodbye, we at once thank him for his sacrifices and take also the time to consider his mistakes, so we may never repeat them.”
He steps forward and stands beside the body, staring fixedly into his father’s eyes, liquefying in a boil as the insects ravage. After a moment he places the pill upon his tongue and swallows. He continues:
“With papa’s passing, we are finally freed from all obligation of satisfying the previous order. We’ll give him our gratitude, as is proper and courteous, and then send him off forever, looking only ahead to something better.”
Francis lifts his head, puffs his chest, and declares:
“Say ‘Thank you for your money, papa.’”
“Thank you for your money, papa,” recite Lucille and Juniper in concert.
“Say ‘Thank you for making daddy so he could make June, papa.'”
“Thank you for making daddy so he could make June, papa.”
“Say ‘Thank you for only calling on Christmas and birthdays, papa.'”
“Thank you for only calling on Christmas and birthdays, papa.”
“And say ‘Thank you for dying before you became a burden to the state, papa.'”
“Thank you for dying before you became a burden to the state, papa."
Francis nods and tips his hat.
“Thanks for everything, papa,” he says. “Now get out of our lives.”
Francis bends forward at the waist and rests his hands upon his knees. He stretches open his mouth and from his stomach geysers a torrent of pink and orange vomit. He turns his head from side to side, covering from top to bottom all that remains of his father. The insects disperse. Lucille treads to the raft’s opposite side and places her hand atop her daughter’s head.
“How do you feel?” Lucille asks.
Juniper shrugs as she fidgets with her bracelet, common copper she has painted silver. She doesn’t face her mother.
“More hungry than anything else, to be honest,” she yawns.
Lucille brushes back a lock of Juniper’s hair and kisses her head.
“Don’t worry,” Lucille assures. “We’ll eat once daddy’s finished.”
“It looks like he could go on forever.”
“Don’t I know it,” sighs Lucille. “He thought about your papa very often. I can’t even imagine everything he’s stifled that he finally wants to express.”
Juniper looks up at Lucille. “Mom,” she says with troubled eyes, “when will I have to throw up all over you?”
Lucille laughs with her mouth closed. “Not for a very long time, sweet tart,” she replies.
“And then my babies will have to throw up all over me, right?”
“Well, it won’t exactly be you they’re throwing up on, angel. You’ll be somewhere more mysterious; a place that none of us can really understand. You’ll be in the air your babies breathe, and the water they bathe in, and the blood that pours out of their noses, and the coils their dogs drop in the yard. People have a way of lasting forever, even if they aren’t exactly arranged the way they used to be. So that won’t strictly be you in the bellies of the gnats, because you are something more than this, you see?”
She runs her finger up and down Juniper’s side in hope of eliciting a laugh. Juniper instead pushes her off and crosses her arms, scowling.
“Father Kilkelly told me I’m supposed to go to heaven,” she huffs. “That sounded a lot nicer than becoming nosebleeds and dog links.”
Lucille gnaws her mustache and grins crookedly, eyes shining. “But baby,” she asks, “what could be more heavenly than having no way left in which to feel pain? To never again be bored, or angry, or heartbroken?” Juniper looks up at her mother once more. The creases in her brow have relaxed. “It sounds pretty boring to me,” she says. “Just floating there in darkness for the rest of time.”
“Why, it’s not like being locked in a room without the possessions you like, sweet tart. You’ll have no sense of the little things you once liked, or even of the thing you think is you at all. Next chance you get, when you’re sitting in the dark, try to undress your senses: don’t want anything, or think anything, or plan or regret or enjoy anything. Maybe you’ll come close, but you can’t ever really do it completely: it’s entirely outside our understanding. So don’t be worried, ladybug. Once you cast off this tactile wad of appetites you live in, you’ll be something beyond even the greatest happiness or misery.”
“So papa will still be around, even if daddy doesn’t want him to be?”
“In a sense, yes. Daddy can try to ignore him all he wants, but the truth is that while we won’t be able to talk with papa anymore, he’ll still be a presence among us whether we like it or not.” Juniper peers at Francis, still spraying his father with slime. He sputters and chokes as the deluge begins to relent. Lucille presses a hand against her belly and with the other strokes her daughter’s hair. Juniper grimaces and looks down at her feet.
“Sounds nice enough,” she says to herself. “But I would still rather live.”
Francis spits his final drops of vomit. He stands upright, wiping clean his lips with his handkerchief, and murmurs:
“Ashes to ashes.”
Francis takes hold of the tarpaulin and yanks it upward, sending his father’s remains rolling off the raft into the lake. Papa Beetborn bobs in place beside the edge, facing his family, none of whom look toward him. Francis guides the spattered canvas toward the raft’s edge with his shoe and sends it adrift, floating peacefully and summoning the gnats with its intestinal ornamentation. Turning to his wife and daughter, he rests his hands upon his hips.
“So,” he says, grinning broadly. “Let’s have a little dinner.”
The Beetborns sit in the center of the raft, Francis facing his wife and daughter. The sun’s descent obscures their sight of one another. The breeze has been steadily accelerating. Lucille’s hand has not left her belly.
Strewn about them are a dozen wadded paper napkins, stained with the oils of the hot dogs they’ve enjoyed. Francis, still chewing, gestures toward the satchel sitting open beside Juniper.
“Toss me another,” he mumbles through the slop of chomped up bread.
Juniper reaches in and extracts a dog. She clutches the plastic bag of buns, but Francis waves his hand in protest.
“No more carbohydrates,” he says. “The Beetborns, as of this moment, are strictly a family of carnivores.” He brings his hot dog to his lips and presses it through, tilting back his head as it slides down his gullet.
“What, so we’re finished with vegetables?” inquires Lucille, slurping down her dog like a noodle, mustard streaking on her mustache. Francis waves his hand dismissively.
“Leave eating plants to deer and cattle,” he says. “We won’t be such hypocritical animals. If we’re to feed on living beings, then we’ll only eat the ones that were birthed by a mother and sustained by her protection. Besides, what honor is there in eating organisms that can’t attack or flee? I assure you, if your hearing was refined enough to detect the frequency at which broccoli screams, you wouldn’t be so keen to steam it on the stove. No, our future will be nothing but fishtails and pig snouts, and we’ll be a more principled family for it: giving those creatures’ children fearsome enough a memory to keep them running forward, devouring whatever slows them down. Think of the time we’ll save on bathroom trips alone! By so steeply diminishing the regularity with which we move our bowels, we can triple our productivity, less constrained by nature’s irksome duties. Yes, the future is looking brighter every second.”
“Speaking of papa,” interjects Juniper, “is he going to go down any time soon?”
Papa Beetborn has not sunk or drifted. Still he bobs in place, facing his relations with hollowed eyes.
“Whatever creatures inhabit this lake will tend to him, June bug,” says Francis, smiling amorously. “I trust they’ve already begun nibbling at his toes, and once they know that he isn’t bait, he’ll be the most coveted dish for a mile. Such an enchanting mystery, life’s cycles of consumption: forever putting the old to new use.”
Juniper peers again at papa. A contraction clicks in her throat, and stifling herself she lowers her eyes and shreds a napkin in her fingers. Insects glide all about them, too small in too great a darkness to be detected. Francis licks clean his hands and eyes his watch: he gasps.
“It’s nearly nine!” he panics. “Wife!”
“I have a name, you know,” snaps Lucille, cheeks bulging with pork paste.
“Save it for your mother; as long as you’re with me, you’ll play your proper part. Now, finish the dog you’re working on and get up on your feet. It’s time!”
Lucille halts with hot dog in hand, eyes wide in alarm. Francis taps the face of his watch: she lifts her hand from her belly and claps her palms together, folding the wiener in half. She throws it neatly into her mouth and clamors to stand, straightening her hat and tie. Juniper pauses before a bite, disquieted by the excitement. Francis positions Lucille two paces back from the center of the raft. He gestures at Juniper and, breathing shallow breaths, points to the position opposite her mother: she meekly shuffles where directed.
“As we come to witness a life’s conclusion,” Francis booms with shoulders thrown back, “so too do we embrace the arrival of the new as we witness a life’s beginning!” Lucille undoes her belt and zips open her pants. Francis pulls her trousers to her knees, making public her penis, swelling to the brink of eruption. She holds her fuselage in her thumb and index finger. Francis continues:
“My darling June bug, it has taken every ounce of discipline between your mother and I to refrain from telling you, but you are blessed now with the privilege to see debut firsthand a new thread in your family’s tapestry.”
Juniper looks only at Lucille’s penis, her mouth hanging agape. Lucille declares:
“We’re having a baby right this moment!”
Francis squeezes his wife’s shoulders and ecstatically kisses her cheek. He sets to stroking the stubble on her chin.
“We’ve been discussing it for months,” he says. “And it seemed fittingly poetic to align the arrival of your new sibling with the departure of your grandfather.” He nuzzles Lucille’s neck. “Timing the birth to this time exactly took many, many tries, but I must confess, it proved quite a challenge to keep my hands away from this supple siren here.”
Lucille grins and hides her blushing face from her husband. “Frank!” she giggles. “What a thing to say to our little girl!”
“I can’t control myself!” whoops Francis. “It’s so monumental a night, I fear I’ll soon have my pants around my knees myself!”
Francis and Lucille laugh riotously. They kiss one another’s lips, entangling their mustaches. A wad of masticated hot dog falls from Juniper’s mouth and plops upon the floor. Francis tears himself free and whispers into Lucille’s ear:
“Begin whenever you’re ready.”
Lucille takes a breath. She shuts her eyes as for a moment all is still. A stream of urine begins to dribble from her unit’s tip, splashing on the floor of the raft. Steadily it accelerates, landing with wider and more voluminous a drip. From the stain slicking the timbers rises the camphor of pork. Juniper stands immobilized, the breeze carrying the arc of fluid ever closer to her shoes. The stream at last subsides but Lucille’s penis remains tumescent with an alien obstruction. She continues concentrating, veins pulsing in her straining neck.
From the opening of the tip appears a bluish bubble. Francis crouches, leveling his eyes with the ballooning orb.
“Keep at it!” he exclaims. “You’re almost there!”
Lucille pushes and pushes and at last the bubble falls to the floor, settling atop the stains of urine. In it is a pristine baby glowing pink, lazily opening its eyes and yawning. Francis jumps up and down in place, thrusting his fists into the air.
“It’s here! It’s here! The Baby is here!” Lucille stands smiling, breathless and perspiring. Her penis hangs in tattered ribbons, fluttering in the breeze. Gingerly she pulls her trousers to her waist and falls into Francis’ embrace. Papa Beetborn still bobs in place.
Juniper swallows the hot dog meat still in her mouth and approaches the bubble. The Baby tilts its head up and studies its sister: it smiles affectionately, and Juniper reciprocates. Francis kneels and brings the bubble to his chest, spinning about the raft.
“My creation, my future, my enduring tissue! You’re home at last!” He smooches the bubble all over, persisting in his blissful spins. So contagious is his elation that Lucille begins as well to spin about, arms raised, laughing freely. Francis releases the bubble and again tosses up his hands: the Baby bounces into its sister’s arms. Juniper holds the bubble close, retreating from her parents. Francis and Lucille twirl all over the raft, ringing their euphoria throughout the newly settled night.
“The Beetborn of tomorrow!” Francis sings.
“The living union of our bodies!” Lucille cheers.
“The affirmation of life!”
“The guardian of our golden years!”
Francis halts, staggering dizzied. Lucille carries on, oblivious.
“Boy or girl?” he wonders. “We haven’t checked!”
Lucille stops spinning and stumbles, teetering momentarily on the edge of the raft.
“June, sugarloaf,” she calls blearily. “Toss me that bubble, will you?”
After brief hesitation, Juniper sets the bubble on the timbers and rolls it toward her mother. Lucille snatches it and lifts it to her head, pressing her eye to its surface. The Baby recoils, concealing its nipples with its hands.
“Any protuberance?” Francis asks.
“None at all,” Lucille replies.
“A girl, then? Another girl?”
Francis wipes a teardrop from his cheek. “My sweet,” he calls to Lucille, “drop that baby and come to me.”
Lucille releases the bubble, setting it bouncing about the timbers. Juniper rushes after it and secures it in her arms. With brow furrowed she studies her parents: they embrace, each sniffling as they stroke one another’s hair. Lucille sighs and stands upright, honking her nostrils in her handkerchief. She nods and exhales:
“Ready when you are.”
The water hisses beneath Papa Beetborn: he begins to descend.
Francis kisses his wife’s forehead. Twizzling the end of her mustache, he whispers:
“I’ll see you there.”
He takes hold of Lucille’s face, one palm pressed to each cheek. She shuts her eyes. With a deep breath, he jerks her neck, a sonorous crack resounding about the lake. Juniper gasps as Francis lowers his wife’s corpse into the water.
“Mom!” she cries.
Francis folds his hands and faces his daughter.
“Try not to be distressed, banana bread. With the arrival of your little sister, there simply isn’t room at the table for three generations of Beetborn women: an elder and an heir are all a proper family needs. Your mother has courteously shown herself out, and now her station is yours! Doesn’t that sound exciting to you, to be the oldest woman in our house? Now that papa and your mother have stepped forever into the past, you and I will guide the future of your sister and all Beetborns yet to come! What do you say, lemon drop?”
Juniper stands trembling silently. The Baby eyes the space in which her mother stood, hands over her mouth. Papa Beetborn vanishes beneath the water. Francis shifts in place and wrings his hands.
“June bug? Sweetheart?”
Juniper grips tight the Baby’s bubble and with a yelp pelts it at her father’s nose. The orb rebounds into her clutches as Francis reels, stupefied. Juniper again whips the bubble into his face; and again; and again; and again.
Francis sways as blood begins to dribble from his nostrils. With eyes awry and arms extended before him, he takes a step and stumbles backward, plunging into the lake. He thrashes about, trapped beneath the water’s surface. Juniper falls onto her rear and shuts her eyes, shielding the Baby’s bubble in her arms. The tumult subsides: a black bowler hat floats to the surface and bobs in place. Juniper sits in silence, fighting her shivers. The Baby slouches stunned against the back of her bubble. After settling her nerves, Juniper steadies her breath and looks down at her sister.
“Can we get you out of there?” she asks.
The Baby shrugs. Juniper drums her fingers on the bubble.
“Do you understand why I did what I did?”
The Baby turns away. Juniper puffs a laugh through her nose. She sets the bubble on the raft and ruffles her hair. She attempts to smoothen her dress, but its furrows endure. There is no paddle in sight: they appear to be stranded till morning. She tucks her hair behind her ear and runs her finger down the bubble.
“I guess this means I’ll have to name you.”
The Baby yawns and drowsily lifts her face. Juniper discerns on her sister’s lip the subtle stubble of a burgeoning mustache. She states with a crooked grin:
“I think Lucille will do for now.”
Baby Lucille smiles passively and lowers herself onto her side, bringing her knees to her chest. She rests her head on her folded hands and shuts her eyes. Juniper taps the top of the bubble.
“Will you be okay with that?” she asks. “You ought to have some say in what the world will call you.”
Baby Lucille slumbers soundly. Juniper stretches, nods her head, and easing herself onto her side drapes an arm around her sister’s sphere.
“Go ahead and sleep,” she says. “We’ve had enough words for one day.”
She lies silent with eyes open, breathing evenly. Moonlight gleams atop the water’s surface and a merciful breeze rolls throughout the woods, gently disordering Juniper’s hair and ruffling the ribbons on her dress. The insects leave her untroubled: crickets chirp soothingly on all surrounding sides. Juniper rests her thumb between her lips, and before a minute passes, her eyes have fallen shut and she is sleeping.